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Judge throws out lawsuit challenging D.C. school closures; plaintiffs plan appeal

A federal judge has dismissed the few remaining claims in a lawsuit that sought to stop the closure of 15 D.C public schools, rejecting plaintiffs’ arguments that the closures violated the civil rights of city children.

“No one is denying that the racial disparities in the recent closings are striking,” U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg wrote in an opinion issued Friday. But “no reasonable jury could infer intentional discrimination.”

Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced in January 2013 that she planned to close the schools, which enrolled far fewer students than they were built to support, so that officials could use resources more efficiently.

Activists with Empower D.C. sued to stop the closures, which disproportionately affected poor and minority students. Sixty-nine percent of the school system’s students are black and 11 percent are white, for example, but black students accounted for 93 percent — and white students just 0.2 percent — of students from the closed schools.

The plaintiffs argued that the closures were intended to free up buildings for charter schools and release funds to pay merit bonuses for teachers, a disproportionate number of whom worked in majority-white schools.

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson spoke before the DC Council and the public about her reasons for proposing to close 20 schools in November 2012. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Boasberg, who has been skeptical of the plaintiffs’ arguments since the lawsuit’s filing, dismissed most of the case in October. But he allowed several civil-rights claims to move forward, saying the law required that he give the plaintiffs a chance to gather and present evidence.

In Friday’s decision, Boasberg wrote that the District had provided “overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence” that its closure decisions were race-neutral. The disparity was not due to discrimination but to the location of the under-enrolled schools, which were in neighborhoods where charter schools have attracted an increasing share of students, he added.

“While it is indeed regrettable that our city schools have become so segregated, it is residential segregation, along with changing population patterns, that is largely to blame for the disparities in the closures,” Boasberg wrote.

Henderson praised Boasberg’s “thoughtful decision.”

“Our decision to consolidate schools was made after careful consideration and conversations with the community, recognizing the best way to use the limited resources we have to support all of our students in all wards across D.C.,” Henderson said in a statement.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said in a statement that he is “pleased that the Court recognized what we knew from the start — that our policymakers and elected officials are only doing their best to give the children of the District the top notch education they deserve.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Johnny Barnes said he plans to appeal.

“We believe we proved that race did motivate the closings, and that is not permitted,” Barnes said. “In addition, the Government wholly violated clear laws governing the process for undertaking school closings and must not be left to believe it can ignore citizen participation and input.”

Boasberg wrote that he is sensitive to the plight of children who have lost the comfort of their neighborhood school and their connections to beloved teachers. But the plaintiffs are arguing policy matters, not law, and their “fight is one for the ballot box — not the courts,” he wrote.

“Although Plaintiffs dislike charter schools, performance pay, and the increasing number of D.C. school closures, there is simply no real evidence that these policies are discriminatory,” he wrote. “As a result, federal courts have no authority to intervene in these sensitive policy choices. . . . Instead, those decisions must be made by the policymakers and experts who have, for better or worse, always controlled public education.”

In a draft plan to overhaul school boundaries, city officials recently proposed reopening five of the closed schools. Activists have argued that the proposal is evidence that no matter what role race played in the decision, the closures were shortsighted.

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



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