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City sued over unequal schools
Parents seek to halt flow of public dollars to charters
(Published September 7, 2004)

By STEPHANIE BRINSON
Staff Writer

Parents and advocates of children in D.C. Public Schools are asking a federal judge to halt city spending on charter schools and ensure public schools are given economic priority in what they say is unequal funding between the two types of schools.

Members of a group called "Save Our Schools Southeast/Northeast" and seven parents filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Sept. 1 against top school and city officials, alleging the city has neglected public schools and has violated the Fifth Amendment in its support for charter schools.

"We just got involved because we continued to see a lot of resources and efforts being put into charter schools," said Gina Arlotto, president and co-founder of Save Our Schools Southeast/Northeast, a local nonprofit association geared toward improving D.C. public schools. "At some point, D.C. Public Schools has to do something to save our public schools and stop putting money into charter schools."

The plaintiffs argue the city is spending an excessive amount of money and resources on charter schools in the name of "school choice," while failing to address the persistent problems facing public schools in the District.

This, they say, is a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements, and the "separate but equal" standard set in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling 50 years ago.

The suit’s allegations center on the new Two Rivers Public Charter School, which plaintiffs say has received extensive support from the city government despite allegations that the school used a discriminatory admissions process.

They are asking that city officials prohibit the formation of new charter schools and cut funding for charter schools until funding for public schools is given top priority.

Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), an advocacy group for charter schools, called the lawsuit "pure demagoguery." He asserted that public schools and charter schools "are funded on a completely equal basis."

Although the suit also attacks the school voucher program passed by Congress last year, which allocates public funding to grants for students to attend private schools, it focuses primarily on charter schools.

The funding advantage given to charter schools by the city, according to the lawsuit, allows them to offer benefits and resources that exceed those offered by public schools, which they contend is why an increasing number of parents are choosing charter schools over the deteriorating public schools.

The suit cited initiatives like City Build, a federally funded grant program that is allocating $5 million toward building five new charter schools in the District.

It is most frequently the children of lower-income families who are forced to remain in public schools, said Terry Collingsworth, attorney for the plaintiffs. He said he believes the city’s focus on charter schools is part of a long-term plan to gentrify the District by making the schools mostly white and pushing out lower income, mostly minority residents. Charter schools have control over their admission processes, he said, and they can control how diverse they want their school to be.

Cane disagreed, saying charter schools are open to all students and are not permitted to screen out students in any way unless the schools are full. He said charter schools serve mostly disadvantaged students, as exemplified by their higher percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch. He also noted that 99 percent of students in D.C. public charter schools are black or Hispanic.

"Everything that I heard Mr. Collingsworth say is 100 percent not true and I bet he knows what he says is not true," Cane said.

In a press release, the plaintiffs cite Two Rivers Charter School and its co-location with Eliot Junior High School as "the most graphic example of the District’s ‘separate and unequal’ school system."

The plaintiffs expressed outrage that the charter school was allowed to form this year after allegations that its founders made remarks about D.C. public schools being "too black" and used a discriminatory admissions process, the lawsuit states.

According to the document, the Two Rivers student population is 45 percent white, 40 percent black, 10 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian, a breakdown so skewed from the city’s and school system’s demographics that it shows the school was selective, Collingsworth contends.

Two Rivers is one of few integrated charter schools in the city, and it reflects the diverse population of residents living on Capitol Hill, said Cane, who added that FOCUS will offer the school pro bono legal help to fight the suit.

The lawsuit goes on to claim that the charter school receives more resources to provide better programs for its students, while the 100 percent black student population at adjoining Eliot Junior High has had its programs and funding cut.

"I don’t think there is any conspiracy by the school system to over-fund one set of schools over another set of schools," responded Mayor Anthony A. Williams when asked about the lawsuit.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator