Judge declines to block D.C. school closures

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson can move forward with plans to close 15 D.C. schools, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, rejecting activists’ claims that the closures violate the civil rights of city children.

U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg acknowledged that the closures will disproportionately affect black, Hispanic and disabled children, but he wrote in a strongly worded 31-page opinion that there is no evidence that D.C. officials intended to discriminate against certain groups of students.

City officials “are actually transferring children out of weaker, more segregated and under-enrolled schools,” the judge wrote, and activists’ push to keep students in those schools “seems curious, given that these are the conditions most people typically endeavor to escape.”

D.C. officials said they sought to close schools with low enrollment to use resources more efficiently and improve education across the city. Those half-empty schools were clustered in parts of the city where charter schools have grown quickly and where residents are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

Boasberg ruled that the city had provided a reasonable justification for closing the schools and a reasonable explanation for the disparate impact on minority students.

Thirteen District schools are slated to close in June and two more next year, displacing more than 2,700 students. All but two affected children are black or Hispanic, according to a complaint filed in March by five plaintiffs— including three parents and two advisory neighborhood commissioners — who were organized by community group Empower DC.

They sought a preliminary injunction to halt the closures until the case could be heard, arguing that students would suffer “irreparable harm” if schools are shuttered.

Boasberg was unswayed by that argument and declined to grant the injunction. Most of the affected students are slated to move into more-integrated schools with higher proficiency rates in math and reading, he pointed out.

Though Boasberg denied the injunction, the case remains alive, and Empower DC vowed to continue pursuing it.

“We are fighting not only to have equal access to neighborhood public schools but to save the fabric of our communities that is threatened by displacement and gentrification,” Empower DC’s Daniel del Pielago wrote to supporters Wednesday. “This is as much about who gets to live in DC ten years from now as it is about our schools.”

The judge issued his opinion on the same day that the Chicago Teachers Union filed two complaints in federal court to stop that city from closing 53 schools, arguing that the closures would disproportionately affect black students.

Boasberg added that the plaintiffs’ legal theory was overly broad, suggesting that it would be illegal for city officials to close any school with a higher-than-average population of minority students.

He also rejected the claim that D.C. officials broke the law by failing to give advisory neighborhood commissioners proper notice of the school-closure plans.

While Henderson’s staff members did not send notice by certified mail to commissioners as required by law, they did send e-mails. They also broadcast the closure plan to the public and solicited feedback that they used to revise the initial closure plan, reducing the number of schools to be closed from 20 to 15.

“This desire for community input was no charade,” Boasberg wrote.

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