C.G., et al v. PA Department of Education

Pennsylvania delegates funding for special education through a formula that assumes that the same arbitrary and fixed percentage of students in every district qualify for special education. As a result, special education students in districts where that percentage is higher than the fixed rate receive less funding  and limited  access to the resources their peers receive elsewhere.

In 2006, the Community Justice Project brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of parents of special education students in 56 Pennsylvania school districts, alleging that the state’s special education funding formula violates the IDEA, the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The District Court denied the plaintiff’s IDEA and ADA/504 claims. The ADA/504 claims are now being appealed to the Third Circuit. The Law Center has filed an amicus brief in support of this appeal, maintaining that Pennsylvania’s current special education funding system is discriminatory and has denied special education students in many districts equal access to services and programs.

Pennsylvania’s special education funding is based on a statutory subsidy that allocates funding on the assumption that exactly 16% of students in every district qualify for special education services. In each district represented in the class, the  percentage of qualifying students was higher than 16%, thus limiting funding per student enrolled in special education. As a result, students were directly disadvantaged: districts with high amounts of special education students were vastly limited in the amounts of services they could provide to their students in need.

The District Court found that these vast funding differences between districts likely account for many of the disparities in outcomes for these students. Less funding and the limited programming it brings prevent students from progressing to their potential and improving to levels they may be capable of reaching.

The numbers tell the story: districts with larger special education enrollment saw their students achieve lower standardized test scores and maintain lower graduation rates. Despite this evidence, the court ruled that the plaintiffs failed to prove that this system results in neither violations of the IDEA, ADA, or the Rehabilitation Act nor unfair discrimination.

The Law Center’s amicus brief argues the ADA and 504 mandate that public and federally funded programs and institutions must provide equal services and benefits to all qualified individuals, regardless of severity and, in this case, frequency of disability.  The court has previously held that under the ADA and Section 504, an individual cannot be discriminated against based on severity of disability.  It should follow that a class cannot be discriminated against based on frequency of disability. This brief also argues that disparity of funding caused by the current formula constitutes discrimination. Just as an individual cannot be be penalized for his/her level of disability, an individual student should not be denied access to resources because of her location and district’s current composition.

In the original decision, the court also decided that none of the plaintiffs went through the appropriate due process procedures. It held that they lacked proper standing and therefoer could not bring discrimination claims. Low-income families often do not have access to attorneys or advocates to guide them through this system and inform them of their child’s (and their own) legal rights. They lack the guidance to get through the due process system in the most accurate, efficient way. Our brief also argues that the lower court was wrong in placing this responsibility on parents; it should be the responsibility of the school district to ensure access to appropriate public education for students.

Oral arguments for the appeal of this case will be heard on Wednesday, July 17th at the United States Courthouse at 601 Market Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Click here to read our amicus brief.