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How the Public Interest Law Center spent their 2014 defending Philadelphia

August 4, 2015 Category: Purpose

The Public Interest Law Center, founded as one of the original Lawyers Committees for Civil Rights Under Law in the midst of the civil rights movement, has always been focused on policy advocacy, community organizing and education — looking to secure significant, long-lasting change.

So how is it doing? The Law Center released its 2014 Annual Report/2015 Strategy, which shows not just its progress, but the important issues in Philadelphia this last year. Here’s what it accomplished:

  • Filed 22 new cases, continued 15 cases and ran 6 comprehensive projects
  • Engaged more than 3,100 people through trainings, community education events, and presentations
  • Utilized 102 pro bono attorneys and 80 volunteers who donated 9,500+ hours of their time
  • Filed two lawsuits against state officials for failing to fund public schools and for failing to investigate complaints filed by Philadelphia parents about school conditions

All that adds up to significant change in Philly:


In November 2014, together with the Education Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers LLP, the Law Center filed a school funding lawsuit on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference against state officials for violating the state constitution by failing to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

The Law Center helped to found the Campaign for Fair Education, a statewide, non-partisan effort of more than 50 organizations working to secure a legislative solution to the school funding crisis by 2016.

Looking to hold officials accountable for Philadelphia schools, the Law Center filed suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Education for failing to assume responsibility to investigate 825 complaints of curriculum deficiencies faced by Philadelphia students after years of state disinvestment.

In the next year, the Law Center looks to advance the school funding lawsuit and support related litigation and public pressure to secure a full, fair funding formula for public education in Pennsylvania.

Special Education

Elwyn is one of the nation’s oldest private nonprofit organizations serving people with intellectual, developmental and behavioral challenges — despite investigations by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, several families experienced persistent shortages in service resulting from a lack action by state officials. The Law Center recently represented five families who have children with disabilities file administrative service actions against Elywn for continued lapses in service for their children.

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The Law Center concluded a favorable class settlement agreement with the School District of Philadelphia to stop its policy of arbitrarily transferring students with autism between schools without input or consent from parents. This settlement benefits more than 1,800 students.

More than 1,800 students with autism in Philadelphia are no longer being abruptly moved between schools without parental input

In October 2014, the Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia for unilaterally assigning Extended School Year (ESY) services for students with disabilities without making individualized determinations.

The Law Center intends to continue to challenge the School District of Philadelphia to provide interpretation and translation for 12,000 families of special education students who have limited English proficiency. Additionally, they plan to address the challenges of children with disabilities when they enter the workforce: many end up in segregated sheltered workshops, earning a fraction of the minimum wage.

Voting Rights

Two years after beginning the case in partnership with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Advancement Project, and Arnold & Porter LLP, the Law Center won permanent protection for more than 500,000 voters who would not have had appropriate identification to vote.

More than 500,000 voters in Pennsylvania still have access to the polls

In the future the Law Center looks to provide sustained legal support to the election reform movement in Pennsylvania to secure updates to election laws such as online voter registration, no-excuse absentee ballots, and early voting.


In October 2014, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania agreed to hear the Law Center’s appeal in a pair of Right-to-Know Law cases related to how the Department of Human Services uses taxpayer dollars to provide dental care to the 1 million children enrolled in Medicaid as well as a growing number of adults.

The Law Center will continue investigation of rates paid to dentists participating in Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program to determine the effect of those rates on access to dental care for low-income children and people with disabilities.

Environmental Justice

Building on their successful collaboration and organizing to help pass the land bank law in 2013, throughout 2014, the Law Center organized gardeners, farmers, and residents to provide their critical input into the five-year Strategic Plan Policies for the Philadelphia’s new land bank.

Through its Garden Justice Legal Initiative, the Law Center provide direct legal services, community education, organizing, and policy advocacy to support residents in creating and preserving gardens and green space.

The Law Center will continue to organize gardeners and farmers to oversee implementation of Philadelphia’s Land Bank and advocate for improved city urban agricultural policies, procedures, and programs, as well as expand their legal and policy advocacy support for communities facing environmental and public-health threats.


Independence Foundation Fellow Julie R. Foster launched a project in the fall of 2014 to help individuals with disabilities access and remain in the workforce, as only 22 percent of individuals with disabilities in Philadelphia are employed.

In partnership with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and private lawyer Dana Bazelon, the Law Center litigated under state and federal law to stop employers from automatically disqualifying people from jobs, and support employers in complying with state law.

“Not being able to get a job and being told that I couldn’t work was really devastating to me and my family. Everything in my life just went downhill. With help from the Public Interest Law center and Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, I was able to overcome my obstacles and life is looking much better.” said Stephanie Settles, who benefitted from the litigation.

The Law Center intents to continue to represent individuals and build employment case law to help people with disabilities or criminal records get and keep jobs.

You can read the full report on the Law Center’s website.
Image via the Law Center’s annual report / Neal Santos

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect that the Public Interest Law Center re-branded its name from Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia to the Public Interest Law Center. 

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