COVID-19 Exacerbates Racial Inequities
As districts move forward from a semester marked by unexpected school closures, insidious forms of racial inequality and class stratification are playing out in Pennsylvania. COVID-19 has left districts scrambling to adapt schooling to a remote or blended environment, systematically disadvantaging students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, refugee students, students experiencing homelessness, and other students who are now facing additional barriers in accessing the education to which they are entitled. Students of color at the intersection of these identities typically face harsher circumstances than their similarly situated white peers, further illustrating how racial inequity is baked into our employment, health, housing, and education systems.
While preparing to reopen in the fall, districts must now address revenue shortfalls and a host of additional obstacles brought on by the pandemic. Poorer districts already faced disadvantages due to chronic underfunding. Now, the atmosphere is even more bleak, and the need for meaningful advocacy even more dire. Helping our students through the crisis will require concretely addressing not only the apparent impacts of COVID-19, but also the underlying structural racism built into our education system that has allowed the pandemic to further disadvantage students of color. We at ELC stand committed to advocating for educational equity and justice for all students in Pennsylvania as we work to help students and families navigate the new COVID-19 reality.
Centering Equity in Back-to-School Planning
ELC helped host a listening session titled "Equity in Education During COVID-19 School Closures," as a member of the Philadelphia Coalition of Special Education Advocates. Parents, educators, and advocates shared moving testimony about their difficult experiences during the 2019-2020 school year and the shift to remote learning. Several common themes emerged, such as lack of technology resources, lack of English learner instructional services, and profound learning losses for students with disabilities.
These concerns, and others that were shared during the program, will be used to make planning recommendations as Philadelphia transitions into the next school year. This successful event was co-hosted by the Mayor's Commission on People with Disabilities, the Mayor's Commission of Asian-American Affairs, and the Mayor's Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs.
Imagining and Striving Toward Police-Free Schools
ELC stands with students, parents, and advocates across the country who are calling for and winning commitments to police-free schools. This effort is not simply a request for the physical removal of police from school; it is a vision of schools where students and educators have the resources and supports they need to thrive, without relying on police and systems of oppression to discipline and push out students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities. Across Pennsylvania, we are seeing increased attention to this idea — with some steps forward and many reminders of how much work remains.
In Pittsburgh, school board members Devon Taliaferro and Pam Harbin introduced a board resolution to reimagine school safety, so that the district’s deliberations about school police occur in the sunlight with public participation and input. The resolution calls on PPS to remove school police and instead invest funds in resources for students and schools. It was introduced soon after a coalition of over 15 organizations, including ELC, launched the COPS OUT of Pittsburgh Schools campaign with a June 22 rally before a virtual public hearing of the school board.
In Philadelphia, despite strong testimony and support from students, parents, and teachers, and a petition from Philadelphia Student Union signed by 13,000 people, the school board has not taken action to defund its school police force. Instead, law enforcement will be renamed as "school safety officers," changing both their job descriptions and their uniforms.
While receiving renewed attention now, this movement for police-free schools is a longstanding one that has been led by Black and Brown students. ELC supports them and this work as we reimagine a vision of schools in which all students feel supported and safe.
Oral Argument on Discovery Issues Held in School Funding Case
Oral argument was held virtually before Commonwealth Court on June 30 regarding motions to quash the depositions of several witnesses, including the governor, secretary of education, and recently elected Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Brian Cutler. Cutler replaced former Speaker Michael Turzai as a party respondent following Turzai’s June 15 resignation.
On behalf of our petitioner parents and school districts, our team (ELC, Public Interest Law Center, and O’Melveny & Myers LLP) is seeking to depose Speaker Cutler in his official capacity. The Speaker opposes this effort on grounds that any testimony would be protected by the Speech and Debate Clause privilege. Yet Speaker Turzai and now Speaker Cutler have named their legislative staff as witnesses.
Petitioners also seek to depose Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera in his individual capacity; he was superintendent of Lancaster School District in 2014 and can speak to his decision to have Lancaster join as a petitioner in the lawsuit.
Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ordered additional briefing from Speaker Cutler and will issue a ruling on these matters in the coming weeks.
PA School Districts Need Additional Federal Stimulus Funding
The 2019-20 school year has officially ended, and school districts across Pennsylvania today mark the daunting start of the 2020-21 fiscal school year. State and local funding levels are set and, in many cases lower than last year, leaving school districts to confront the reality that available funding will not meet their growing needs. Lost instructional time has increased demand for learning opportunities this summer and next school year. The need for continued social distancing is likely to increase transportation, facilities, and other school operating costs. Federal stimulus dollars have largely made up for lost local revenue, rather than addressing these additional costs. More federal funding is needed to ensure that students can achieve a high level of learning amid the changes, trauma, and tremendous demands they and their families are experiencing.
ELC joins other education advocates, including our partners at PA Schools Work, in calling upon Congress to provide another round of stimulus funding to support K-12 schools. Stimulus funding to date remains far less than the federal government provided during the 2008 financial crisis, at a time when the direct impact on schools was far less. We urge you to contact Sen. Pat Toomey and Sen. Bob Casey to let them know that Pennsylvania needs additional federal support to weather the COVID pandemic.
ELC Celebrates Supreme Court Victory for LGBTQ Students
The United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on June 15 declaring that Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination against individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT). ELC joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in filing an amicus brief focused on the importance of this issue for people of color who identify as LGBTQ. The case has important implications for schools because courts apply the definition of “sex” as used in Title VII to interpret other statutes, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits educational entities from discriminating on the basis of sex.
Supreme Court Voucher Decision Allows Discrimination
We are disappointed that yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue obligates taxpayers to fund private religious schools that can and do discriminate against students based on disability, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, socioeconomic status, and other biases. Such programs also contribute to racial and socioeconomic segregation. Read our statement here.
Chester Upland School District Moves Forward to Explore Outsourcing Options
Chester Upland School District is moving forward to implement a court-approved Recovery Plan which permits a receiver to pursue a controversial, unprecedented charter conversion and outsourcing of operations of all Chester Upland K-12 schools. On June 22, ELC participated in a status conference where we raised concerns regarding the need for greater transparency, public input, and direct communications with parents, whom ELC and the Public Interest Law Center represent.
The receiver and former superintendent of Chester Upland, Dr. Juan Baughn, recently appointed Dr. Leroy D. Nunery II, of PlūsUltré LLC, as a strategic advisor to assess the district’s needs and prepare RFIs and RFPs. This summer the district is seeking proposals from intermediate units to outsource certain functional operations.
The receiver is releasing requests for information to potential school providers in the coming months with an RFP process beginning in the fall and continuing into 2021. This month, the district also hired a new Superintendent Carol Birks, a former superintendent of New Haven, Conn. who has been quoted as saying that she has “no preference” regarding whether Chester Upland is converted to a charter school.
Chester Upland School District has a long history of deeply entrenched underfunding that has harmed generations of students of color. We will continue to oppose efforts to charterize the district at the expense of providing a quality education to students.
A Victory for Students with Disabilities and LEP Families
When a western Pennsylvania school district failed to follow a 15-year-old’s IEP and prevented his limited English proficient parents from participating in his education, the PEAL Center and ELC stepped in to support the family in raising these violations with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The Department issued a favorable decision, confirming that the district violated multiple provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and that the student was entitled to compensatory education services. As a result of this collaborative advocacy, the district must also complete extensive staff training on IEPs, on parent participation, and on providing information in parents’ native language — reforms that will benefit all students in the district.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Makes Positive Changes in Code of Conduct
ELC’s continued advocacy has resulted in meaningful changes to Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Code of Student Conduct — including the elimination of a policy that allowed students to be suspended for multiple minor infractions, such as tardiness or having a cell phone. This change and others in the code mean that when schools reopen, whether in person or virtually, students will have the benefit of policies that require intervention, not punitive discipline.
ELC Wins Systemic Reform of District's Special Education Evaluation System
In response to a state administrative complaint, ELC received a decision that will lead to systemic changes affecting thousands of children suspected of having disabilities in Philadelphia. After hearing from many families, ELC filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education (BSE) on behalf of 12 individual students and hundreds of similarly situated students who were denied timely special education evaluations.
BSE found that the School District of Philadelphia was not properly identifying and referring many children in need of special education evaluations. Even when children were properly referred, BSE found that students were not evaluated within the required timeframe. As a result, hundreds of children were languishing without the special education services they needed.
BSE ordered the district to put in place new policies and procedures, monitor data to ensure timely evaluations, and provide necessary compensatory education services to individual students impacted. These reforms will ensure that children with disabilities receive the services they need in a timely manner.
ELC Welcomes Additional Summer Interns
We are thrilled to welcome two new interns to our offices this June, Megan Izzo and Brandon Miller.
Megan is a rising second-year student at Stanford Law School. Prior to law school, she worked at an employment law plaintiffs’ firm in New York and taught high school English in Madrid, Spain for two years. Megan has engaged in direct service work with asylum seekers, undocumented workers, workers with disabilities, and populations experiencing homelessness.
Brandon Miller is entering his second year at Temple University Beasley School of Law, where he is a Rubin Presser Public Interest Fellow. He has worked as a full-time teacher in the School District of Philadelphia since 2005. He has been involved with several education related public interest and social justice organizations throughout Philadelphia.
Save the Date!
ELC will commemorate 45 years of working to ensure access to a quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania on September 24 at 6 p.m. Due to COVID-19, our celebration will be virtual. Please stay tuned for more details!
Seeking Postgraduate Legal Fellows
Are you a rising 3L student or finishing a judicial clerkship in 2021 and in search of an impactful postgraduate fellowship? ELC is accepting applicants for legal fellows to begin in fall 2021. Ideal candidates will have a demonstrated commitment to public interest law. Preference will be given to fellowship applicants who submit their applications by July 17. Learn how to apply here.
What We're Reading...
- From Juneteenth to the Tulsa massacre: What isn’t taught in classrooms has a profound impact, by Daniella Silva, NBC News
- Black Minds Matter, by Coshandra Dillard, TeachingTolerance.org
- Bias Isn’t Just A Police Problem, It’s A Preschool Problem, by Cory Turner, NPR Morning Edition
- The banality of racism in education, by Jon Valant, Brookings Institute.
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