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Judge Blocks Delaware From Closing All-Girls Charter School

A federal judge has issued an injunction blocking Delaware education officials from closing an all-girls charter school that they labeled a "failing school."

U.S. District Leonard P. Stark of Wilmington ruled that because the state would continue to have an all-boys charter school, closing the all-girls school next academic year would likely violate the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The case concerns the Reach Academy of Girls Charter School, a 468-student K-8 school in New Castle, Del. In November, state education officials determined that Reach Academy was a failing school based on standardized test results putting it at or near the bottom among all public schools in the state, court papers say. The school's charter was not renewed.

Meanwhile, Delaware has an all-boys charter school, a 300-student grades 5-8 school in Wilmington whose charter was renewed for five years in 2012.

Reach Academy and several parents and students sued the state over the charter nonrenewal, claiming violations of the 14th Amendment equal protection clause and due process clause. 

In a Jan. 3 opinion in Reach Academy v. Delaware Department of Education, Judge Stark held that the school lacked standing to sue the state but that the students and parents could pursue their claims. Noting that Jan. 8 was the deadline in the state for school choice applications, the judge expedited consideration of the plaintiffs' motion of a preliminary injunction to block the charter nonrenewal.

The judge said that the state's determination that Reach Academy "is a failing school, while debatable, is rational and defensible, and not arbitrary and capricious."

However, because Delaware would continue to offer an all-boys charter school next year and not an all-girls school, and is barred under state law from granting charters to other single-sex schools, closing Reach Academy would create a problem of gender discrimination.

"Indefinitely depriving Delaware's girls of access to this unique and valuable educational opportunity, while at the same time providing it to Delaware's boys for at least several more years, is likely to be found to be a violation of the individual plaintiffs' right to equal protection," the judge said.

As for Title IX, which bars discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs, the judge said the students and parents were likely to prevail based on the "unique set of circumstances here," even though federal regulations on Title IX contemplate that there need not always "be parity between the number of all-boys charter schools and the number of all-girls charter schools."

The judge dismissed arguments from the state that the Reach students are harmed by continuing to attend a failing school.

"Because Reach is a charter school, no student is being compelled to attend Reach," he said. "All of Reach's students have chosen to go to school at Reach, notwithstanding the very public facts of the student body's standardized test scores and DOE's labeling of Reach as a 'failing' school."

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