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Civil Rights Officials Investigating Complaint Against 'One Newark' Plan

Federal officials confirmed that they are investigating a complaint that alleges that a plan to revamp public schools in Newark discriminates against black students.

The complaint against the "One Newark" plan was filed by the Washington-based Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group that has also filed similar complaints challenging school closures and charter school expansions in New Orleans and Chicago.

 A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed the investigation to Reuters in a statement on Wednesday.

A lawyer for the Newark district told Reuters that the district was cooperating with the investigation.

"We remain steadfast in our belief that the One Newark plan is not discriminatory and is, in fact, predicated on the goals of equity and excellent educational options for all of our students regardless of race, socioeconomic status or learning ability," Charlotte Hitchcock, the district's chief of staff and general counsel, said.

More than half of the students in the approximately 38,000-student-district is African American.

NJ Spotlight's John Mooney posted a copy of the letter from the Education Department to the Advancement Project, confirming the investigation.

The One Newark Plan, unveiled last December, seeks to create a single district-wide enrollment process for all students. The plan originally proposed to relocate, merge, or restructure some schools and allow charter schools to operate in some existing public school buildings.

It has been criticized by some in the city, including the Newark Teachers' Union, as being pro-charter.

Since its release, the administration of Superintendent Cami Anderson has tweaked the plan somewhat to respond to community disaffection, but discord still remains in some quarters.

Anderson has defended the plan, saying that it creates no new charter seats and that it directs the growth of charter schools into the neighborhoods that needed good schools.

The state of New Jersey late last month announced the creation of a working group to be comprised of the superintendent, state education officials, and local representative to discuss school reforms in the city, including One Newark.

Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, said Thursday that the task force was still being constituted.

Advocacy groups and parents are increasingly using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to challenge neighborhood school closures in urban areas.  

Last week, the Department of Education's civil rights office confirmed that it had launched an investigation into a complaint filed by a local neighborhood group president against the Houston Independent School District.  The complaint contends that the closure of two schools— Jones High School and Dodson Elementary School— and others over the years discriminated against black and Hispanic students.

The school district also said that it was cooperating with the civil rights office.

Just last Friday, a federal judge dismissed the remaining complaints in a lawsuit alleging that the closures of 15 public schools in the District of Columbia violated the civil rights of the district's  African American students. The plaintiffs argued that the closings were discriminatory because they disproportionately affected minority children; and that reforms such as charter expansion and performance pay for teachers  will harm black students.

U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg opined that there was no real evidence that the policies were discriminatory.

While racial disparities existed in the population affected by school closures, it was not because of discrimination but because of where the schools with low enrollment were located.

"The core problem here is that the parents' fight is one for the ballot box—not the courts," Judge Boasberg 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." 

The plaintiffs plan to appeal, according to The Washington Post.

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