The apparent lack of oversight has led to the School District of Philadelphia being attacked, seemingly, from every angle.
That trend continued this past week, when state Rep. W. Curtis Thomas supported a federal lawsuit filed on June 1 by one of the city’s largest unions to keep William H. Harrison Elementary School open.
Harrison — at 10th and Thompson streets in North Philadelphia — has been targeted for closure by the school district. The suit, filed by District 1199C Union of Health Care Employees, claims that by closing Harrison, the school district will impose undue harm on its students, particularly the special-needs students and those with health issues.
Harrison Elementary currently enrolls 157 students, according to the school district. Thomas contends that while almost a quarter of Harrison’s students have a disability, more than 94 percent come from an economically disadvantaged background.
The suit names the School District of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Mayor’s Office on Education and the School Reform Commission as defendants. Several parents of special-needs children also signed on as plaintiffs in this case; the law firm Freedman & Lorry, LLC, is handling the case.
“The result of these school closings will be devastating for students in traditional public schools. The plaintiffs and I believe that this is a calculated effort to privatize the education of the poorest students,” Thomas said. “The equal funding of local elementary and high schools has been subjected to declining resources.”
School District officials declined to comment on the suit or its merits, as did Susan Murray, the lead attorney litigating on behalf of the students.
Thomas, a longtime proponent of public education who has fought the district’s recent moves to close several schools and eliminate dozens of positions, believes that the plan to close Harrison was a hasty one, a decision that will only bring further hardship to parents of at-risk students.
Specifically, the suit hinges on several precedents, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Equal Protection/Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection, Substantive Due Process and Through the Efficient Education Clauses of Pennsylvania’s constitution. The lawsuit contends the school district and its surrogates violated IDEIA and infringed upon the students’ civil rights.
Thomas said a student diagnosed with Down Syndrome transferred from Ludlow to Harrison, because Ludlow didn’t meet the requirements of instructing a child with DS. The state representative also says there’s another student who suffers from asthma, seizures and needs speech therapy. So far, Thomas claims the school district had no talks with the parents of either child on ways to remedy the situation, once they are forced to transfer.
“The closing of Harrison will force parents to either have their young children travel a distance to school in a dangerous area or attempt to enroll them in a local charter school that may be closer to home,” Thomas said. “This is especially troubling when 22.3 percent of the students are classified as special needs — and most charter schools are not equipped to deal with their needs.”
According the district’s Facilities Master Plan, Harrison will be among the nine schools targeted, and the district recently confirmed its closure. Displaced Harrison students will then most likely attend Ludlow Elementary at 5th and Master streets. or Spring Garden Elementary, 1146 Melon Street. Neither Ludlow nor Spring Garden has a full-time school nurse.
Thomas claims that aside from lacking a full-time nurse, both Ludlow and Spring Garden Elementary lack libraries and the move will waste Harrison’s new, state-of-the-art computer lab and library, which recently received more than 250 new books.
“The law requires states to provide a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment in order to receive federal funding,” Thomas said in a subsequent statement released by his office. “The statute also outlines a detailed due process procedure to ensure that all students receive free, appropriate, public education.”
Thomas believes the surge in the number of neighborhood charter schools have worked against neighborhood public schools; and that the school district is in collusion with the Department of Education to dismantle the school district as it currently exists, privatize public education and boost school voucher initiatives.
Collusion or not, the school district — through its contentious yet ambitious Five-Year Reorganization Blueprint — plans on privatizing certain school programs through its “Achievement Network” of for-profit business entities. That plan has also called for more independent charter schools while decreasing the overall number of school and office buildings on its roster.
“Instead of announcing the privatization of the Philadelphia public school system, they systematically flood the area with charter schools, then close traditional public schools for low student enrollment,” Thomas said. “Because of this underhanded maneuvering, there are now no traditional public high schools east of Broad Street, north of Spring Garden Street, west of Fifth Street and south of Hunting Park Avenue. It’s no coincidence that they have selected those who are the vulnerable in North Philadelphia to implement the privatization of the public school system.
“We are calling for an end to the denial of access to the equalization of opportunity and education for all students in Philadelphia public schools, regardless of their income, race and neighborhood.”