This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After a pair of state investigations, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Special Education will send new guidelines to the school districts on how to identify and serve students who require surrogate parents to advocate for their special-education rights.
The directive comes on the heels of complaints filed on behalf of two homeless students in Philadelphia who didn’t receive surrogates and ultimately failed to receive special-education accommodations.
According to federal law, when special-education students don’t have guardians, school districts must assign them surrogates who will fight for their legal rights and approve services for the students. Surrogates volunteer for the role and are typically substitute teachers or someone who has a relationship with the child.
A deeper inquiry into the School District of Philadelphia found that it assigned only two surrogates last year, despite indications that many more students might require them. State investigators pointed to that number as part of a deeper issue, but District officials dispute that interpretation.
The state bureau will now require the District to improve its system for assigning surrogate parents.
The advocates whose complaints triggered the investigation say the results suggest bigger problems with the way Pennsylvania serves some of its most vulnerable students.
“This finding indicates that we are not serving students who are facing systemic barriers in a way that allows them equal access to their education,” said Paige Joki, a law fellow at the Education Law Center.