No Proof of Bias Against Poor Disabled Pa. Kids

     (CN) – A federal judge dismissed claims that the Pennsylvania Department of education underfunds special education programs in low income school districts.
     Parents of disabled students from poor school districts led the 2006 class action for discrimination against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Education and its secretary, Gerald Zahorchak.
     Though higher-income schools have fewer disabled students, they receive thousands more dollars per student under Pennsylvania’s funding formula, according to the complaint.
     The formula, created in 1994, hypothesized that 16 percent of each school district is disabled.
     A federal judge certified two classes in the case: a class of special-needs students from poor school districts and a class of special-needs students from poor school districts who also have limited English proficiency.
     In pretrial proceedings, the court ruled that Zahorchak could not be sued in his individual capacity. After a week-long bench trial in September 2011, Chief U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane entered judgment for the defendants last week.
     The 62-page decision rejects the findings of class expert Dr. Bruce Baker, who used an outside study to conclude that special-education funding per student declines as special-education funding rates increase.
     Baker also determined that poor funding caused differences in the educational outcomes between class students and non-class students. He relied on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores, which are conducted in math and reading.
     But Kane noted that “PSSAs do not test life skills, occupational abilities, or speech and language skills, although these are goals of special education.”
     Baker’s study “suffers from a lack of clarity” and fails to show the funding formula hurts students in poor districts,” she wrote. The Harrisburg judge also disputed the reliability of Baker’s theory that poorly funded districts have a higher drop-out rate.
     All evidence produced at trial suggests disabled students with limited English proficiency were assessed in their native language and translators were provided to their parents, Kane noted.
     The class failed to properly calculate the percentage of disabled students in each district, the court ruled.
     Special-education directors and coordinators from Reading, Lancaster, York, Allentown and Harrisburg school districts testified in court that the needs of their disabled students were being met. Testimony showed that school officials properly identified located and evaluated disabled students in each district.
     “Contrary to Plaintiffs’ bald speculation, defendants have presented ample evidence to support a finding that the class districts are compliant with the child find requirement,” Kane wrote.
     “The trial record is utterly devoid of any evidence establishing systematic, or even isolated, violations of the IDEA’s child find requirement,” she added, abbreviating Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
     The class also failed to show how the funding scheme affects the Least Restrictive Environment clause of the IDEA, mainstreaming disabled students with nondisabled students, according to the ruling.
     “In sum, Dr. Baker’s findings show that children with disabilities are slightly more likely to be placed in restrictive environments in class districts than non-class districts,” Kane wrote. “The findings are silent, however, as to whether these placements are appropriate or whether the districts have the resources they need to comply with the LRE requirement.”
     Though families identified obvious deficiencies with the special-education programs available in low-income districts, they would have to do more to succeed with their legal challenge, the court found.
     “Regarding their IDEA claims, Plaintiffs showed that certain outcomes were different, but they failed to show that those differing outcomes were IDEA violations or, to the extent IDEA violations did occur, that those violations were the result of the commonwealth’s funding formula,” the decision states.

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