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Philadelphia Parents Flood State With Special Education Complaints

Parents of students in the financially troubled Philadelphia school district have filed hundreds of special education and educational-adequacy complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, saying that insufficient funding is denying children the education they are guaranteed under state and federal law. 

More than 800 complaints have been filed as part of an effort led by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Parents United for Public Education. The organizations are directing parents to a website where they can file complaints electronically. The goal, they say, is to show the state that inadequate funding is having real, and damaging, effects on the 136,000-student district. 

In October, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, released $45 million in state funds to the district. Earlier, he said he would not release the money unless the district was able to get concessions from its labor unions. 

Helen Gym, a co-founder of Parents United, said the district has already cut back drastically on guidance counselors, books, supplies, desks and chairs.

"We're not talking about luxuries," she said. The cuts have also meant a reduction in school nurses, and Philadelphia schools have enough medically fragile students that such a cut is endangering student lives, she said.

For example, they say, a 12-year-old Philadelphia student, Laporshia Massey, died of an asthma attack that started at school. If there had been a full-time nurse at her school, advocates say, the severity of her symptoms may have been recognized earlier. The school she attended has a nurse two days each week. 

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state education department, said that the agency has received complaints. "The state is confident that the district's administration is ensuring that programs and services required by state and federal laws and regulations are being provided to students," he said in an email to Education Week.  "Complaints received by the Department of Education are being reviewed." 

Sonia D. Kerr, the director of disability rights for the Public Interest Law Center, said the state has said it will look into the issue of school nurses. The district has one nurse for every 1,500 children, far fewer than the ratios recommended by the National Association of School Nurses.  Her office has compiled many of the complaints into a letter to the state. They included complaints of insufficient medical support for students with cerebral palsy, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

"I think they're putting their head under a rock because they're not walking through what this really means. They're waiting for the other shoe to drop," Kerr said. 

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