Parents Sue State Over Philly Schools

Published November 6, 2014

A group of parents whose children attend Philadelphia public schools are asking state courts to step in after the secretary of education ignored complaints about the district.

A lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court in September claims the parents have submitted more than 800 complaints to the Department of Education since September 2013 documenting “dire school conditions.” Because the Philadelphia School District is under the control of the state government, the department and Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq have an obligation to investigate these formal complaints, but have failed to do so, the parents allege.

According to the lawsuit, the parents’ concerns are related to “staff layoffs and reductions of supplies,” along with “curriculum deficiencies” such as lack of physical education classes and foreign language classes.

In at least one instance, a parent complained their child’s school lacked adequate toilet facilities.

The state must be held accountable for its failure to address these allegations,” said Ben Geffen, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and counsel for the plaintiffs.

Ongoing Battle with State

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Dumaresq has reviewed and managed each complaint as it has come across her desk.

“It is outrageous that anyone would question the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s commitment to the educational success, health and safety of all Pennsylvania students,” Eller told PA Independent. “Entities can allege what they want, but the facts in this case are different.”

The lawsuit is the latest volley in a long, ongoing battle between the school district and the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett.

State funding for Philadelphia schools has increased in recent years to all-time high levels, but costs in the district have grown more rapidly.

The district receives enough revenue from state and local sources to spend more than $16,000 per student—well above the national average for public schools.

Non-Classroom Spending Soars

In short, money isn’t the issue, but how it’s spent. Only about 45 cents of every dollar spent by the school district goes to student instruction.

Pension costs and debt service payments are eating away at the district’s budget and reducing the amount of money available for classroom instruction. The district has cut employees and closed schools to make ends meet in recent years, while the state and city have chipped in by approving special taxes and borrowing money on the school district’s behalf.

The lawsuit comes amid a gubernatorial campaign that has largely focused on the state’s role in funding education.

On Tuesday, 22 Democratic members of the state Senate penned a letter to Dumaresq about the parents’ lawsuit and urged the state to increase spending for Philadelphia schools. 

More Political Attacks

Corbett is under attack from unions and Democrats, including gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf, for cutting education funding when he took office in 2011.

In new ads and recent interviews, Corbett is pushing back against that message and touting the $5.5 billion being spent statewide on education this year.

But the parents who filed suit say they expect the Department of Education to do more. They are asking the Commonwealth Court to order Dumaresq to investigate the claims of curriculum deficiencies and to take corrective action, if necessary, to address them.

Eric Boehm ([email protected]) writes for the Pennsylvania Independent. Article reprinted with permission.

Image by juriyrus.