The Pennsylvania Department of Education has declared deficient curricula at four Philadelphia schools where parents complained after budget cuts forced sharp program reductions.
It is a "significant victory" for parents, education activists said, a signal that the state Department of Education is taking seriously its responsibility to monitor city schools' curricula and take action when necessary.
Parents from 75 Philadelphia School District schools filed 825 complaints detailing problems caused by budget cuts two years ago, issues ranging from a lack of arts and physical education to the absence of gifted programs. Initially, the state declined to act, saying it was a local matter. Seven parents then filed a lawsuit, forcing an investigation.
The suit continues, but the state's finding means that the district must create and implement corrective action plans at four schools - Bodine High, High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, and C.W. Henry Elementary - by mid-January.
But, activists said, the four complaints and the state's order, uncovered by plaintiff's attorneys as part of discovery in the case, are just "the tip of the iceberg."
Hundreds of complaints must still be investigated, lawyers said.
Robin Roberts, a Henry parent, lamented the district's elimination of all gifted programming, leaving her son and others with "inadequate academic classes," Roberts said.
"Our children were facing dire situations at schools, many of which persist today," said Roberts, a plaintiff in the suit.
Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs, said she was delighted the state had finally intervened.
"It is long past time for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to take an interest in the quality of education in Philadelphia," Cahn said.
Tim Allen, a plaintiff whose son attends Bodine, stressed that the schools were not to blame; he named as heroes the school's principal and teachers, who he said persist in giving the highest-quality education possible under the circumstances.
But, he said, it is unacceptable that the school was forced to scrap Advanced Placement physics partway through the school year because of money, and that for a time it was looking at reducing foreign language offerings to the point where some students would not be able to fulfill college-entrance requirements.
"Nothing was changing," Allen said, "so I filed a complaint."
Christianne Kapps, mother of a senior at CAPA, said her daughter was attracted to the school because of intensive writing classes on top of the regular high-school English offerings. Reductions to the district's budget have seen those special classes halved, Kapps said.
Her daughter, always an eager student, "has been increasingly disappointed and frustrated with school" because of the cuts, Kapps said, and it feels like her family is being failed.
"We get her to school every day," Kapps said. "We're taxpaying citizens. We're doing our part. I just would really like to see the Pennsylvania Department of Education follow through and do what they're supposed to do."
Kapps said it felt like a validation of her and the other parents' longtime complaints.
"We're finally being taken seriously," said Kapps. "Yes, please listen to us when we say the School District isn't good enough. Please pass a budget that corrects that."
City Councilwoman-elect Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, which organized parents to file the complaints, said the state acknowledgment would have wide-ranging ramifications.
"By filing complaints and taking legal action, we have blazed a trail for all Pennsylvania parents to get results when their child's school isn't offering the curriculum required by state law," Gym said. "Parents across the commonwealth should continue to file complaints, knowing that PDE has now acknowledged its responsibility to take action."
Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the school system, said it would work with the state to address the situation in the four schools.
"The findings again highlight an issue that plagues all Philadelphia public schools: a lack of resources due to reductions in revenues from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Gallard said in a statement. "Over the last three years, the School District has questioned its ability to open schools with an effective education program."
Gallard noted that the district has informed parents and employees that it could close schools Jan. 29 if no state budget is approved.
"For all Philadelphia schools to operate with robust curricula, programming, and resources, we must have adequate public education funding," Gallard said.
Gym and Cahn underscored, though, that the district could not use money as an excuse to skirt its core function: academics.
"The state has to figure it out," Cahn said.
Much like state officials said the district could not finances as a reason to deny new charter applications, the district must not use money as a reason to skimp on academics, they said.
"We're going to demand that comes first," Gym said.