Chapter Three: Education Law Center’s Organizing Principles
Lisa: Janet, you say you initiated litigation in areas that have the potential for significant impact but you’ve said litigation wasn’t ELC’s first step or yours.
Janet: Well I...
Lisa: Can you tell me a little bit about, um, maybe ELC’s organizing principles and how you approached problems?
Janet: Certainly. First of all it is our view, my view, that it is people who make change not lawyers and that sometimes in order to make change lawyers can be useful but, as I mentioned originally with the civil rights movement, that’s not how change is really made, it’s not how it’s institutionalized, not how it sticks over time.
So all of our work is always done in coalition with and in collaboration with parents, parent’s groups, other advocates, sometimes other kinds of allies such as providers or provider groups and so a lot of our work is around public education, making sure, uh, for example, either once we’ve established a right or a right has been established by someone else, like the IDEA, the parents know what their rights are.
So, for example, one of the things I think that the Education Law Center did that was one of its biggest contributions although, um, it sounds less dramatic, is that we put out a manual called the Right to Special Education: A Guide for Parents and many parents have told me over the years that it has been their bible and not only in informing them about what the rules are but in showing school districts that they are informed.
For example, parents told me that all they need to do, or advocates, is put our book which had a very distinctive cover, it was a black and white, like, copy book, down on the table with our logo on the bottom of it and the dynamic at the IEP meeting shifted because the school dist-, and I always said that if there was nothing between page one and page, you know, 21 except blank pages or the poems of Yeats but it had our cover and our back on it, it probably would have been 98% as effective as with all the text in between because a lot of that, and I don’t mean to be hostile to districts but when districts but when districts know that parents are informed and have access to, for example, the Education Law Center in that instance, to get, to have backup then, then it does put more leverage on the parent’s side of the table.
So public education and those kinds of public forums where we would go out and do lots, for example, after Armstrong was finalized and we had the remedy my colleague, um, Ellen Mancuso, who was a paralegal who helped me litigate that case, was my partner in that and I went all over the state, everywhere we could get invited to tell parents and to tell school districts what the rules were, to answer questions and to offer our services to help as families and school districts and teachers rolled out the remedy in Armstrong. So making sure people know their rights and how they can use them are, is as important as actually having or establishing those rights.
And then we also had, for many, many years, a help line where parents could call us with any education, be it special education or regular education, issue and talk to a member of our legal staff. So in addition to sort of these tools that we had, which eventually we put up on our website when one had websites, um, was the fact that they could touch base with someone to help them move from the paper we put out to actually deciding what’s the next step, what should they say at the IEP meeting, what should they do at the next IEP meeting and so that kind of counseling function. And I know I personally and my colleagues have counseled tens of thousands of families over the years about their rights and how to make them real for their children.
Lisa: Your outreach did extend to teachers, as you were saying, um, but I, in some of my research I found something, um, that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said, they claim that ELC was anti-union and anti-teacher and, uh, they even went so far as to, I think, declare that teachers should have union representation at IEPs and parent conferences, all of that. Um, but I think, I mention that because I think it’s underscoring, at least for me, the difference between implementation and acceptance and I’m wondering how do you get people who are so oppose to each other to sit down and negotiate? I mean, essentially, I suppose, what opens people’s hearts to the issue even if their minds are initially closed?
Janet: Well, I think that one of the really wonderful things about having done this area of the law as my specialty, education law, is that on the whole most people who work for school systems whether they’re teachers or paraprofessionals or, um, principals or superintendents, are in the business that they’re in because they care about children. There are certainly some outliers in some situations where one says how could this be possible that you’re spending your life working for children and you’re acting in such an impossible way.
Um, I could tell you some stories about that but I think the important point is that, is that on the whole, the huge majority of people in public education, we like to be successful, they’d like to have good relationships with children and families and they’d like the children to have successful life outcomes. So that’s, that’s a really good place to start so that if you can listen as well as talk to the issues that are affecting the people in the classroom or the people who are trying to setup extended school year program or trying to setup programs for kids with specific learning disabilities in the Philadelphia public schools and you can try and solve their problems while being very vigilant about what your client’s rights are and making sure you don’t slip behind that, um, then you have the best outcomes because you have outcomes that work for the system as well as outcomes that work for families.
And I also urge families to be as non-adversarial as possible and to put, to the extent that they can, their anger or their discontent or their frustration in the back so that they can negotiate in as amiable and as friendly and as supportive a way as possible because one of my other life’s lesson is that nobody really likes to be ordered to do anything. So that even though my career has been spent getting courts, to some extent, to order people to do things I don’t like to be ordered to do things, school districts don’t like to be ordered to do things and families don’t. So if you can move away from that kind of adversarial “ordering”, um, to an area where the atmosphere is we’re all working together to support this child and family and help her succeed, can’t always do it, doesn’t always work but it certainly the place to start and it’s the one that’s most likely to produce the best outcome.
With respect to unions and teachers, specifically, I am intensely supportive of unions, speaking personally, uh, I think that, that, and I think this is more true now then it was before, that unions need to be part of the solution and they can’t be perceived or actually be part of the problem. What made the Philadelphia Teachers Union so mad at us in that particular situation is that we had filed a complaint saying that, not I but my colleague Len Rieser, saying that the data showed and that the least experienced teachers were teaching the neediest kids and that when those teachers acquired seniority, since it’s a seniority based system, they transferred out of the neediest schools with the neediest kids and into the more successful schools with the less needy kids, and that didn’t help the neediest kids. But since seniority is, was, at least at that point, I think still is, such a backbone of the union position than anything that was perceived to attack seniority was perceived to attack unions but that was not in fact the case.
More Interview Chapters
- Early Career
- Education Law Center
- YOU ARE HERE: Education Law Center’s Organizing Principles
- Compensatory Education
- Inspirations and Reflections on Career
About Janet Stotland
Born: 1945, Florida
Title: Executive Director Education Law Center
Advocacy, Civil Rights, Education