Activists sue to stop D.C. school closures


Lead attorney Johnny Barnes speaks at a news conference following the filing of a lawsuit against the District of Columbia government seeking an injunction against the closure of 15 public schools on Friday. (Brendan Hoffman/GETTY IMAGES)
March 29, 2013

Activists trying to halt the planned closure of 15 D.C. public schools filed a lawsuit Friday in D.C. Superior Court, arguing that the closures disproportionately affect poor, minority and disabled students.

“A local government may not, when it comes to equal access to education, treat some classes of its citizens different than it treats another class,” says the complaint, filed by lawyer Johnny Barnes on behalf of five plaintiffs organized by the community group Empower D.C.

Barnes, flanked by supporters in front of the courthouse Friday morning, said he requested and was granted an emergency hearing for April 4. He said he plans to request a preliminary injunction that would keep the schools open until the suit, which alleges violations of local and federal civil-rights laws, is resolved.

D.C. school officials said they had not seen the complaint but “vigorously deny any allegations of discrimination,” spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said in a statement.

“Our consolidation efforts will lead to greater equity across the city, including already an increase in the number of art, music and foreign language program offerings at our schools,” Salmanowitz said. “We are confident that our decisions will ultimately make DCPS stronger and better supportive of our students.”

The District is one of several cities — among them, Philadelphia and Chicago — where officials have announced plans to close public schools. Elsewhere, planned closures have triggered broad outrage and civil disobedience, but the reaction in the District has been more muted.

For months, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has argued that after a four-decade enrollment decline, the school system has too many half-empty buildings that are expensive and inefficient to operate. Local lawmakers have largely agreed with that argument.

Some of the emptiest buildings are in low-income neighborhoods, where more than half of families there have flocked to fast-growing charter schools. Closing such underenrolled buildings, the chancellor said, will allow her to save $8.5 million a year and concentrate resources on teaching and learning.

Henderson first proposed closing 20 city schools but reduced the number after a series of community meetings.

Thirteen schools will close in June, and two more will close next year. All of them are east of Rock Creek Park, and many are east of the Anacostia River in low-income areas.

The 15 closures will displace more than 2,700 students. Black students account for 93 percent of those children, according to the complaint, but are 72 percent of the school system’s total population. Poor children make up 82 percent of the affected students but 70 percent of the larger population, it says.

The complaint argues that the closure plan will subject those children to damaging instability, returning the District to an era of segregated schools “inasmuch as it promotes a dual system denying the same and equal access to education for some school children based upon their race, disability and where they live.”

The complaint also says Henderson can’t prove that the closures will save money and produce stronger schools. The closure of 23 city schools in 2008 cost more than expected and has not resulted in achievement gains, it says, citing analyses by Mary Levy, a lawyer and longtime D.C. schools watchdog.

Barnes said he believes that the complaint is the first in the nation to argue that state and local governments should not be able to use an economic argument as the basis for making decisions that disproportionately affect subgroups of students.

The suit compares the District to Virginia’s Prince Edward County, where in the late 1950s officials chose to close public schools instead of integrating them.

The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the county’s schools reopened in 1964, ruling that officials there had violated students’ constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.

The complaint also alleges that D.C. officials failed to engage Advisory Neighborhood Commission members in the decision to close schools.

Two of the plaintiffs are commissioners who represent neighborhoods where schools are closing, and three are parents of students in schools that are to close.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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