“The District’s charter school system is not open on an equal basis to all students,” Bazelon legal director Ira A. Burnim wrote in the complaint, filed with the department’s civil rights division. He added that the charter system “contributes to and aggravates the longstanding failure” of all D.C. schools to properly serve the city’s most vulnerable and fragile children.
Leaders of two charter schools named in the complaint denied discrimination.
Brian Jones, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the charter sector, said the issue was difficult to analyze because most charters act as the legal equivalent of a mini-school district. They are answerable to D.C. and federal agencies on special education issues.
“I wouldn’t say any of the public schools in the District [regular or charter] are where we would like them to be,” Jones said. “But I am not in a position to say we have a systematic problem in the charter schools.”
The complaint places the District at the leading edge of an emerging national debate over whether the charter school movement — born with the objective of providing more public education options — is adequately serving students with special needs.
Last month, a federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Education brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of thousands of New Orleans special education students. The lawsuit alleges that students are denied access to the city’s charter schools.
“I think that what’s going on in D.C. does track with what we are observing nationwide,” said Brenda Shum, senior counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also a party to the New Orleans case. “There’s an ongoing concern that charter schools are not necessarily equipped to implement their obligations.”
The Justice Department could decide to start an investigation of the charter schools or seek to negotiate an agreement. It could also file a lawsuit.
Bazelon’s complaint does not cite specific instances of discrimination. But it draws together anecdotal and statistical evidence suggesting that children with disabilities are underrepresented in D.C. charter schools. According to District officials, 18 percent of the city’s traditional public school population receive special education services. That figure includes more than 2,000 students in private schools at public expense because it was decided that their needs could not be met in the city system. Eleven percent of the charter population is made up of special education students.