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State can’t dismiss complaints filed by Philly school parents

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Commonwealth Court has ruled that the state cannot dismiss complaints about inadequate conditions in Philadelphia District schools that opened and operated under a "doomsday budget" adopted in 2013, if they pertain to curriculum flaws.

The ruling involved a suit filed by the Public Interest Law Center on behalf of seven parents and Parents United for Public Education against Pennsylvania’s former acting education secretary, Carolyn Dumaresq. The plaintiffs argued the state failed in its duty to consider and investigate "curriculum deficiencies" after massive budget reductions that cut Philadelphia schools to the bone.

Through the website myphillyschools.com, 825 complaints were filed alleging an array of issues: overcrowded classrooms, a lack of art, music, foreign languages, and physical education in the curriculum, shortages in staffing (including teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, administrators, and aides), and unsafe or unsanitary conditions.

The state argued that the plaintiffs’ complaints were non-curricular, and so the Department of Education was not required to look into them.

Judges for the court concluded that issues about building conditions and staffing shortages were not, as Dumaresq argued, curriculum matters. These complaints, therefore, do not require investigation.

"Upon review, the Secretary’s interpretation of curriculum … is not erroneous or inconsistent with the regulations," the judges wrote in their opinion.

But the loss of instructional courses or reduction to them, the court said, were matters to be investigated and corrected, if necessary. "Unlike facility or staffing concerns, these allegations directly pertain to curriculum as that term is defined."

Tim Allen, one of the plaintiffs, had filed a complaint because his child’s high school, Bodine, had stopped offering four years of foreign languages, despite the school’s focus on international affairs.

"PDE wrote back and said they wouldn’t do anything about it because it was a ‘local matter.’ I hope that after today’s decision, PDE will finally fulfill its mandate to oversee the public schools,” said Allen.

Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center, said the ruling should encourage parents to continue reporting complaints about curriculum deficiencies.

"It indicates that if they have similar allegations going into this next school year, that we’d encourage them to file them through myphillyschools.com."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that the Pennsylvania Department of Education was ordered to investigate complaints about curriculum deficiencies associated with the lawsuit.

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