Racial equity lawsuit enters new phase
Exactly four decades after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling challenging school segregation, a 1994 ruling here by Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith served as a clarion call for racial equity in Philadelphia schools.
In that ruling, Judge Smith demanded improvements in the substandard quality of education in what she labeled "racially isolated minority schools" – 134 segregated schools with 90 percent or more African American or Latino students, located in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods, and serving the majority of Philadelphia’s students.
The judge’s findings of rampant inequality and her resulting court orders in Philadelphia’s desegregation case shaped many subsequent District reform efforts and triggered a wave of local activism for educational equity in the mid-1990s. (Interest in her ruling spurred the development of this newspaper.)
Today, a decade later, despite improvements in some areas addressed by the ruling, the majority of those 134 "racially isolated" schools continue to struggle academically.
As measured by standards set under the federal No Child Left Behind law, just 28 of the 134 schools identified as racially isolated in 1994 made "adequate yearly progress" during the 2002-03 school year.
But at a March 18, 2004 hearing, the judge (now Doris Smith-Ribner) decided to suspend Court involvement in the continuing desegregation case for the next three years as part of an agreement reached by the three parties involved in the lawsuit.
At the hearing, all parties in the case pointed to progress in the system, and Judge Smith-Ribner said she was "confident" that "there will be more progress made over the next three years."
New phase in decades-old case
The state’s Human Relations Commission – which is charged with ensuring school district compliance with anti-discrimination laws – filed a complaint in 1970 about racial segregation in the School District of Philadelphia that triggered the court case. After years of hearings and rulings, the Latino community organization ASPIRA and five other local education groups referred to as "intervenors" joined the case in 1993, saying the District still was not providing an equal education to all.
The March 2004 agreement between the Commission, the District, and ASPIRA gives the District three years to show gains in closing the racial achievement gap. The agreement also requires the District to submit regular reports detailing its progress to the Commission and the intervening parties in the case.
If at the end of three years, the District has shown compliance with the Human Relations Act and succeeded in narrowing the racial achievement gap, the Commission could request that the Court end the lawsuit, said Michael Hardiman, assistant chief counsel with the Human Relations Commission.
But if the Commission and the intervening advocacy groups are not satisfied with the progress made after three years, they and the District would continue to negotiate through a defined mediation process, or the case could eventually return to the Court.
"The Commission must be satisfied that the quality of educational opportunity, irrespective of race, has been met," said Hardiman. "If it has not, then the job is incomplete and unfulfilled."
Agreement on signs of progress
Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) who represents ASPIRA and the other intervening parties in the lawsuit, pointed to improvements in the quality of education at the 134 "racially isolated" schools since the 1994 ruling.
He cited the establishment of full-day kindergarten at every school by 1996, as well as the more recent reforms of class size reduction, more spending on textbooks, the ending of the practice known as "leveling" that caused a shuffling of teachers each year in mid-fall, and other efforts to improve classroom instruction.
Hardiman and Churchill said they felt the new agreement made sense in large part because District CEO Paul Vallas has clearly stated that the goal of the District’s current reform initiatives is to eliminate racial achievement gaps.
Churchill said he believes the District is "making good-faith efforts" to remedy the inequalities addressed by the lawsuit. However, he said the new monitoring process does not mean "the District has fixed the problem yet."
Vallas praised the agreement, saying, "it allows our relationship to evolve, but it still maintains the presence of the Court as an accountability agent."
Case raised awareness
In the past decade, the desegregation case has provided critical ammunition for activists concerned about racial inequities in the schools.
When the Court ordered the District to release student achievement data to the public for the first time in May 1993, it revealed little progress had been made since the implementation of the District’s 1983 desegregation plan.
This information fueled increased public dialogue about how to improve public education in Philadelphia, said Churchill.
"The difference that it made was that it lifted up the very sad state of public education in Philadelphia" to public view, noted Steve Honeyman, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project (EPOP).
The case also brought attention to statewide inequities in school funding.
Judge Smith followed up her 1994 ruling by ordering the state legislature to provide the District with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. She said the funds were necessary to implement over 40 recommendations of a court-appointed panel of education experts aimed at equalizing educational opportunity for students at the racially isolated schools.
But the state Supreme Court’s refusal to uphold this part of Judge Smith’s court order abruptly curtailed the impact of her ruling.
Despite the powerful critique of the school system in the 1994 ruling, some local activists maintain that few real education improvements have occurred as a direct result of the case.
"It’s questionable what the impact of it is," said Eric Braxton, executive director of the organizing group Philadelphia Student Union. But Aldustus Jordan, education coordinator for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, said Judge Smith’s indictment of inequities among schools was an important statement.
"Any time there is a court case holding the District accountable for educating all kids equally, it raises the stakes," Jordan said.
Advocates speak on new process
Some Philadelphia education advocates said they hope the recent agreement will continue to push the District to provide equal educational opportunities for all public school students.
Churchill said PILCOP is taking steps to ensure that the new agreement provides meaningful information to the public. The organization will be holding public forums to publicize Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) school performance data, which are to be released this summer.
"We want to continue to enable community groups to be effective advocates," he said.
In the March 2004 hearing, Judge Smith-Ribner made clear that the new process was just one more step towards creating a system that serves all children well.
She urged Vallas to focus on increasing parental involvement, providing a more equitable distribution of qualified teachers, improving safety, and further reducing class sizes.
This lawsuit is part of a larger, unfulfilled legacy of "providing equality in education for all children" set in motion nationally by Brown v. Board of Education, Judge Smith-Ribner pointed out.
"We’re still struggling with those same issues that the Supreme Court dealt with," she said. "But I must say that we’re making progress."