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CG v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Dep't of Education

September 29, 2009

CG, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS
v.
THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION AND GERALD ZAHORCHAK, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yvette Kane, Chief Judge United States District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania

(Chief Judge Kane)

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs, parents of students in Lancaster and Reading School Districts, bring this action on behalf of their minor children to challenge the method for distributing special-education funds in Pennsylvania. They contend that 24 P.S. § 25-2509.5, the Pennsylvania statute which apportions special-education funds, violates federal laws, specifically: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794; the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1; the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq.; and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. Defendants are the Pennsylvania Department of Education ("PDE"), the executive department of state government that oversees basic education and special education, and Gerald Zahorchak, the Secretary of the PDE. Now before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for class certification made pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23. (Doc. No. 13.) For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Plaintiffs' motion.

I. BACKGROUND

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") conditions a state's receipt of federal funds on the implementation of statewide special-education programs guaranteeing free appropriate public education ("FAPE") to eligible disabled children. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). Consistent with the IDEA, Pennsylvania appropriates funding to local school districts on an annual basis specifically for special education. Plaintiffs allege that this appropriations statute, 24 P.S. § 25-2509.5, violates federal law because the funding formula requires the PDE to allocate special-education funds to a school district based on the district's overall average daily membership of special-education students, or "ADM," rather than on the district's special-education needs or its ability to provide FAPE.

In addition to the formula, Plaintiffs allege that three other features of § 25-2509.5 limit the school districts' ability to provide FAPE. The first, a "hold harmless" provision guarantees that a school district does not receive less special-education funding than the year prior. (Am. Compl. ¶ 15.) The effect of the provision, according to Plaintiffs, has been to "lock in" the inequities of the formula, creating "an inverse correlation between the number of special education students in a school district and the amount of state aid per student received by a school district." (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16-17.) Moreover, Plaintiffs contend that the provision accounts for nearly 70% of total special-education funding. (Am. Compl. ¶ 16.) The second feature of concern to Plaintiffs is that the statute indirectly encourages school districts to place disabled children in highly segregated "approved private schools" by funding tuition subsidies through a separate funding statute. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 21-22.) In other words, because school districts can separately account for private-school tuition subsidies, school districts have economic incentives to place children in restrictive private schools in lieu of using designated special-education funds to keep them in their current classrooms. Finally, Plaintiffs allege that the funding formula denies FAPE to the many special-education students in the Lancaster and Reading School Districts with limited English proficiency (LEP) because it fails to take into consideration the need of specialized bilingual education.

In this action, Plaintiffs seek an injunction requiring the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education to abandon the current funding formula and to distribute special-education funds based upon the actual number of disabled students and the actual cost of their special-education needs. Plaintiffs have moved the Court to certify a primary class and two sub-classes on the grounds that class certification would be the most efficient and just method of attaining the desired relief. (Doc. No. 13.) Defendants have filed a brief in opposition to such motion (Doc. No. 42), to which Plaintiffs replied (Doc. No. 44). Oral argument on the motion was held June 20, 2008. (Doc. No. 46.) The motion is ripe for disposition, and for the reasons that follow, it will be granted in part and denied in part.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The plaintiffs have the burden of demonstrating that the requirements of Rule 23 have been satisfied, but they do not need to prove the merits of their case at the class certification stage; "in determining whether a class will be certified, the substantive allegations of the complaint must be taken as true." Chiang v. Veneman, 385 F.3d 256, 262 (3d Cir. 2004). The class certification requirements are "meant to assure both that class action is necessary and efficient and that it is fair to the absentees under the particular circumstances." Baby Neal for and by Kanter v. Casey, 43 F.3d 48, 55 (3d Cir. 1994). To demonstrate that a class action is an appropriate method of litigation, the plaintiff "must establish that all four requisites of Rule 23(a) and at least one part of Rule 23(b) are met." Chiang, 385 F.3d at 264 (citing Baby Neal, 43 F.3d at 55). Rule 23(a) states:

One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all only if:

(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable;

(2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class;

(3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and

(4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a). With regard to Rule 23(b), Plaintiffs seek class certification under 23(b)(2), which requires the Court to also find that:

(2) the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief ...


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