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Civil rights complaint filed over Philadelphia school closings

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    Photo: Benjamin Herold/NewsWorks

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By Benjamin Herold
for WHYY/NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner

Seeking a moratorium on dozens of planned school closings, community organizing group Action United filed a federal civil rights complaint Wednesday against the School District of Philadelphia.

The eight schools approved for closure last spring serve a disproportionately high percentage of African American students, resulting in a negative "disparate impact" on the city's African American communities, argued Action United member Theodore Stones during a Wednesday morning rally outside District headquarters.

As a result, Stones said, the District should halt its stated plan to close several dozen more schools over the next few years.

"The School Reform Commission says that up to 64 more schools will be closed over the next several years. ... That by itself will be a disaster," Stones said. "If the trend of closing disproportionately African American schools continues on such a large scale, calling it a disaster becomes an understatement."

District officials said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits agencies that receive federal funds, including school districts, from discriminating on the basis of race, color and national origin.

In its complaint to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, Action United argued that the eight schools approved for closure last spring serve a higher percentage of minority students and students with disabilities than the districtwide average. Students at those schools will be negatively impacted, the group argues, because they will lose their neighborhood schools and be required to travel long distances to new schools that will not necessarily be higher-performing.

"The District has not demonstrated why closing schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods with higher numbers of students with disabilities serves any educational necessity that could not be accomplished through less discriminatory alternatives," reads the complaint.

Groups from a number of other cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Washington, have filed similar complaints in recent months.

Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago said those groups have so far gotten little traction, however.

"While the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights takes their time, children are being put in harm's way and communities are being destabilized," Brown said.

In Philadelphia, the District is moving forward with its plan to close dozens more schools by next fall. District leaders say they can save as much as $35 million per year by shedding the "stranded costs" associated with underutilized buildings.

At Wednesday's rally, Action United members challenged that estimate, citing the experience of the Washington school system, where savings from 23 school closures in 2008 were offset by related costs that were much higher than expected.

"We do not agree that these closures will necessarily be a solution to the crisis," said Darcella Cross.

A 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative found that widespread school closings in other cities generally failed to generate the expected savings.

Members of Action United also criticized the SRC for not allowing the public to weigh in on which schools should be closed, instead limiting input to opinions on broad options and overall impact.

But the focus of the formal complaint filed by the group is the disproportionate negative impact they say school closings will have on minority students' communities.

Marsha Moore of Southwest Philadelphia said that the answer is to invest more resources in struggling, predominantly African American schools, not to close them.

"If you make schools better, you make the neighborhood better," said Moore, mother of a 9th grader at Communications Tech High School. "There's a ripple effect."

Action United member Carmen Wallace has a 7th grader at Austin Meehan Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia.

"I'm not even worried about my daughter's school being closed, because the community there, the Caucasians that are there, they're not going to let it happen," she said.

"It's not going to affect any schools out in the Northeast. It's only going to affect North Philly, South Philly. ... That's the sad part about it."

 

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