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We will not be silent: Parents want state accountability

By Helen Gym on Sep 11, 2014 09:38 AM
Photo: Parent United for Public Education

Parents United's Robin Roberts, with State Sen. Larry Farnese (third from right) and State Sen. Vincent Hughes (far right), at a press conference announcing the reopening of the complaints website.

A child dealt with the death of a parent with no counselor available during a time of extreme distress.

A high school student started each period searching for desks and chairs because her classes were so overcrowded.

A 7-year-old with emotional and learning needs began regressing and scratched himself bloody during class because a classroom aide and full-time counselor were no longer available, as they had been the year before.

A Bartram High parent filed a complaint in October about multiple assaults, disruptions, and a lack of staffing, while her honors student struggled. “I have serious concerns about my child’s safety,” she wrote, presaging violence at Bartram that would make national news later in the year.

These are just a handful of examples among the 825 complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) by parents, educators, and students last year as the District’s “doomsday budget” unfolded. None of these complaints earned an investigation  from state officials.

Pennsylvania state law allows for any individual to file a complaint with PDE for curriculum deficiencies and obligates the state to conduct an investigation of that complaint. That was the intention when Parents United for Public Education and our attorneys at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia launched a major campaign last year to hold the state accountable for the consequences of enforcing a doomsday budget.

Parents responded. Hundreds of complaints poured in from more than 90 different schools across the District. From overcrowding, to school safety, to lack of textbooks, to school services, the complaints show that parents and families care deeply about the quality of education in schools all across this city.

Parents United believes the complaints had some effect on shaking  loose more than $45 million in federal money that the state was holding in return for teachers’ union concessions. Much of the $45 million last fall went toward special education services and the restoration of some guidance counselors and other school-based personnel. In a handful of cases involving special needs children (who have more specific legal protections), the state ordered the District to provide full-time school nurses. 

However, for almost all non-special-needs families, and even for most special-needs complainants, the state failed to make any attempt at an investigation. Most families received a standard form letter informing them that the issue was a local one and would be referred to the School District. None of the families received a response from the School District.

At the very least, we expected a Department of Education investigation into these complaints. We expected a phone call and conversation, a review of school and District budgets, feedback to each complainant, and corrective action where the District failed to meet its obligations.

What we got instead was such a level of neglect that, after months of work and hundreds of hours on our part documenting and following up with complainants, we had no choice but to file a lawsuit and ask a court to compel the state to act responsibly.

More than anything else, the complaints underscore the absurdity of the state’s governance of Philadelphia public schools for the last 13 years. For more than a decade, Philadelphia has been under a state takeover in which the state exercises full powers to drastically alter the District’s governance structure in an effort to address a crisis situation. Yet when parents complain about the actual crisis in schools – a lack of resources, appropriate staffing, the absence of required programs and services – the state claims that this is a local responsibility over which they have no power and thus no responsibility.

For example, the state claims that its actions are all about financial accountability. As a result, it oversaw the closing of 30 public schools and thousands of layoffs. But when it comes to holding districts accountable for the academic fallout of such decisions, the state cheerleaders suddenly scatter.

It’s more than just legal convenience. It’s what we mean by an abdication of responsibility.

When our very own state-controlled District enacts policies that violate the state code and students’ legal and academic rights, it is absolutely the state Department of Education’s responsibility to act immediately and decisively to not only investigate the complaints but to correct violations. For this reason, 23 state senators, led by Sens. Vincent Hughes and Shirley Kitchen, sent a letter this week to acting state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq demanding to know what follow-up her office had made.

Although many within the public have called for such actions, this lawsuit calls the courts into the matter. We don’t have rose-colored glasses when it comes to lawsuits and the courts. We understand that what courts often establish is the bare minimum. As of now, we don’t even have that.

As a second year approaches with doomsday-proportion budget scenarios, we ask parents and caregivers not to accept the circumstances within our schools. Along with our partner, the Media Mobilizing Project, we’ve reopened our website, where parents, educators, students, and the public can continue to file complaints and demand state action.

We are coordinating with parents and school leaders at back-to-school nights and Home and School Association meetings. This isn’t about punishing principals and school staff. It’s about a clear documentation of insufficient resources and placing accountability squarely back onto the state, where it belongs.

We’ll keep on holding our state responsible for the conditions of our schools. We hope you’ll help us do that, too.

Find out more about your legal rights and how to file a complaint at


Helen Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (12)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 11, 2014 10:31 am

You can count on my full support and I will be happy to do whatever I can do to help.

What everyone can do to help is to continue to write letters to elected representatives and file complaints.

What we can all do to help is get out and vote for Tom Wolf and vote only for candiates who support public education and a statewide full funding formula. 

Elections Matter -- so get out the vote.


Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on September 12, 2014 1:47 am

Corbett is in trouble according to the polls. But that should not make us complacent. Not sure how great Wolf is, but at least he is  NOT Corbett.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 12, 2014 8:29 am

Corbett got elected largely because the Philadelphia and SE PA voter turnout was low. The democratic party organization has to understand that it has to step up big time for the good of Philadelphia's schoolchildren and get out the vote against Corbett and his ilk.

We have to understand that educational policy is made in Harrisburg and made by the governor's office and the Department of Education.

The Public Interest Law Center can sue the Secretary of Ed, which they should and I support wholeheartedly, but the answer is in voting out Corbett. Getting a new Secretary of Ed and changing educational policy away from the corporate empire centered policies of the last decade and back to student centered and community based education policy, is essential. 

I am a lawyer (educator first) and I understand the lack of power of the lawsuit very well. Who is elected is more important than any lawsuit. 

Elections Matter.

Submitted by Carol W. Heinsdorf, M.S.L.S., N.B.C.T. (not verified) on September 11, 2014 12:05 pm

What was Tomalis doing about the complaints?  He certainly had enough desk time to address them personally.  What is Dumaresq's reason for not assigning him to the task?

Submitted by Lisa Haver on September 11, 2014 2:24 pm


Are you sure about this?  Didn't Dr. Hite just tell us, as reported in the press, that there are no persistently dangerous schools?  Seriously, there are fewer counselors, nurses, teachers, administrators and security staff--but schools are safer. Reporting of serious incidents by principals is mandatory, that's how we know that it's true. That takes a large leap of faith.

I just heard a City Councilwoman, during today's session, report that her son in Central is in classes where kids are sitting on windowsills because there are not enough desks.

We need everyone, parents and teachers, reporting on the conditions of their schools and their classrooms.

Submitted by Anon, anon, we must go anon... (not verified) on September 11, 2014 9:32 pm

Some students at Central are rostered into classe with over 50 kids!

Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on September 12, 2014 1:16 am

Seriously, Lisa, I wonder how many in Council care about the conditions in the schools or are themselves part of the privatization crowd.

It is wonderful that parents are taking the state to court....finally. It should have happened years ago. Everyone was too caught up in getting high scores on the PSSA. And believing the hype from the SRC about their wonderful hires, including Ackerman.

I agree with Rich that elections matter, including those we elect to Council and Mayor. Pickins are slim.

Submitted by Helen Gym on September 11, 2014 3:29 pm

Interesting that Tim Eller, PR for the PA Dept. of Ed, said the department doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation but had no problem talking with the partisan outlet the PA Independent. This is what he had to say:

“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.”

We invite Mr. Eller to make his “outrageous” statement to any of the 800+ parents who filed in outrage about the conditions within their children’s schools.


Submitted by Education Grad ... on September 11, 2014 10:52 pm


As a teacher, I would love to file a complaint. However, because a complaint must be filed on behalf of a student, I am concerned about doing so because of confidentiality concerns. Can Parents United provide guidelines to address my concerns regarding confidentiality? Thanks.

Educator of Great Students

Submitted by Helen Gym on September 12, 2014 6:52 am

It depends on whose confidentiality you are concerned about. This is not an anonymous complaint because it has to be investigated. The goal was to make specific complaints that link to direct harm or consequences to students. We have made many generic complaints in the past that have not led anywhere and we are unclear whether they can trigger a department investigation.

So my first encouragement is to inform parents of their rights, make them aware of particular conditions in schools and try to link them to student concerns. If you are at a high school, students who are 18 and older can certainly sign for themselves.

That being said, a number of teachers (not many since this was primarily a parent campaign) did individually sign complaints on behalf of students after checking with the parent. In other cases non teaching community members filed without a student named. But i am unclear if they then got even the form letter. 

If you have a specific question, the best thing to do is to email it to our attorneys at PILCOP either Michael Churchill ( or Sonja Kerr, who specializes in special ed ( You can always email me at



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