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Federal Judge Rejects Challenge to D.C. School Closings

A federal district court judge has rejected a legal challenge to a plan to close underutilized schools in the District of Columbia's public school system, saying he found it "curious" that parents were seeking to keep children in schools that were academically "weaker" and "more segregated."

U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg said there was no evidence of intentional discrimination on the part of District of Columbia Schools Superintendent Kaya Henderson or others behind the plan to close 15 traditional public schools in the 45,000-student system. The plan is estimated to save some $8.5 million per year.

"The public-education landscape in the District of Columbia has changed," Judge Boasberg said in his May 15 opinion in Smith v. Henderson, denying a preliminary injunction to halt the school-closing plan. "The advent of public charter schools, coupled with demographic shifts, has resulted in substantially decreased enrollment in certain neighborhoods over the last fifteen years."

Parents challenged the plan on civil rights and procedural grounds, including under the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that the plan adversely affects black and Hispanic students and families. Court documents show that in the District's public school system as a whole, 68.4 percent of students are black; 13.8 percent are Hispanic; 3.7 percent are Asian, other, or of unknown background; and 9.2 percent are white. In the 15 schools slated for closure, by contrast, 93.7 percent of students are black; 5.9 percent are Hispanic; 0.4 percent are Asian, other, or unknown; and less than 0.1 percent= (just two out of 3,053 students) are white.

Judge Boasberg said it was not enough for the plaintiffs to show a racially disparate impact of the plan to prevail; they had to show intentional discrimination.

"Under-enrolled schools in the District are concentrated in areas of the city where the number of school-age children has decreased and where charter schools have thrived—areas that happen to be almost exclusively black and Hispanic," the judge said.

Boasberg also rejected claims brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act that the closure plan adversely affected students with disabilities, including those with special education plans calling for them to be educated at their nearest public school.

Boasberg said the harms to the plaintiff parents and schoolchildren "are hard to spot."

The school system's "data show that the plan will reassign students to schools with significantly higher test scores and slightly more diversity," the judge said. "Although plaintiffs undoubtedly value their neighborhood schools, their injury seems slight given that their children—along with thousands of others—are moving to better-performing, more-integrated schools."

The District of Columbia decision comes the same week that the Chicago Teachers' Union filed two lawsuits challenging a plan to close 53 elementary schools in that city's system. Education Week's District Dossier blog reported on those suits earlier this week. The suits raise some of the some claims cited in the District of Columbia suit.

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