A federal judge has agreed to hear a case brought by an association of D.C. charter schools that alleges that the city has not provided uniform funding to public charter schools and traditional schools, a violation of the D.C. School Reform Act.
Former D.C. attorney general Irvin B. Nathan asked a federal court last fall to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the District has jurisdiction to make locally based funding decisions. But U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan said the case should move forward.
Stephen Marcus, the lead counsel for the charter schools, called it a “favorable opinion.”
Robert Cane, a senior adviser of FOCUS, a charter advocacy group, said, “This victory energizes us to keep going with the lawsuit as long as it takes to get the government to stop discriminating against public charter school kids.”
The lawsuit was filed by the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, along with Eagle Academy and Washington Latin public charter schools, in the summer of 2014.
In their complaint, the schools estimate that the city has spent about $2,150 less per charter student each year since 2008 than it has for students in the D.C. public school system, in violation of the School Reform Act.
Passed by Congress in 1995, the School Reform Act paved the way for charter schools to open in the District and required the city to set up a “uniform formula” to fund charter and traditional schools equally on the basis of enrollment.
D.C. charter and traditional schools are funded primarily through a per-pupil formula. But the charter school plaintiffs allege that additional taxpayer money goes to the traditional school system, largely in the form of services from other city agencies, such as facilities maintenance by the Department of General Services or legal representation by the attorney general’s office.
Nathan’s motion to dismiss says that policy decisions the D.C. Council has made about school funding are within its powers delegated by Congress through the Home Rule Act in 1973. The law allowed the District to have its own popularly elected legislature and delegated it broad authority. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine inherited the case this year.
How the two laws interact is an important legal question for the nation’s capital, given its status as a federal district that is subject to congressional oversight. Many view it as a test of the District’s authority to govern its own budget and affairs.
The judge wrote in her opinion that the case should proceed because the plaintiffs have a “plausible claim for relief” and “because it is not yet clear whether the actions of the Council impermissibly conflict with the will of Congress as set forth in the Home Rule Act and School Reform Act.”
Chutkan did dismiss part of the plaintiff’s case — an argument that the city has violated the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which makes federal law the “Supreme Law of the land.” Her opinion said that the clause does not apply to legislation passed by Congress that deals exclusively with the District.
Robert Marus, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office, called the opinion a “partial win” for the city.