Activist Says the Fight Has Just Begun
The lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court last week by Empower DC has been bumped up to federal court, and a judge there has set a May 10 date to hear arguments as to why he should act on the organization's legal request.
Empower DC, a local grassroots organization, is seeking to block D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson from closing 15 of the city's traditional public schools slated to be shuttered by the end of the 2014 academic year.
"The case was moved to federal court because we raised federal questions," said Empower DC's lead attorney Johnny Barnes. "They [lawyers for the District of Columbia Public Schools] thought they could slow it down but the judge was very gracious and set May 10 as the date for the preliminary hearing. He will decide the case before May 22."
"What you have here is that the government is treating people differently and that's a prima facie case of discrimination. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) is treating people of color and special needs students differently from other people, and that is illegal and unconstitutional."
Barnes, 64, said that the legal team's goal is to seek a decision from Judge James Boasberg before May 22. Empower DC is asking the judge to grant them a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. May 22 is the day the D.C. Council votes on the 2014 District budget.
"If [the] judge does not grant the temporary restraining order and the preliminary injunction by May 22, it's a done deal. It is a tight schedule but we will be heard and have an outcome by May 22," said Barnes. "We're very pleased with that. Our action would stop DCPS from closing those schools. I think they'd be loathe from doing it again but one doesn't know what resides in the minds of those people."
The lawsuit is the tip of a contentious, high-stakes power struggle between parents and DCPS over the direction of the city's traditional public schools. Educators and education advocates across the country are watching the D.C. case closely since this is the first city where opponents of school closings have filed a lawsuit. Barnes also said he'd been contacted by other lawyers who asked to see the filing and he said he hopes they will join in the legal fight.
In Chicago, angry parents and frustrated teachers have taken to the streets to protest the decision of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school officials to close 54 elementary schools and save $1 billion over 10 years. Much like the complaints in the District, critics and opponents of Emanuel's plan accuse school officials of not inviting parental input, putting students at risk by moving them to schools in rival neighborhoods and they add that the proposal will not improve the schools.
The battle is being waged in other cities, including Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and New Orleans, said Empower DC's Education Director Daniel del Pielago.
Northwest-based Empower DC and concerned parents are incensed by Henderson's January announcement of a decision to close the schools, all of which are located east of Rock Creek Park in Northwest, a historical dividing line in the District between whites and blacks, the wealthy and the working class in the city.
Barnes said it's obviously discriminatory when public schools east of the Park are closed because of under-enrollment while schools west of the park and near Capitol Hill were kept open when their enrollment numbers dipped significantly a number of years ago.
"With the lawsuit, we're going to let that take its course. We're working with parents to see what they want to do," said del Pielago during an interview on Saturday, April 6. "I'm at a conference with the American Federation of Teachers ... looking at national actions along the same issues. We're looking at joining forces. I've been telling people now it's national. There is still a lot of resistance. Parents still want to fight to make sure schools stay open."
Del Pielago, 39, said outside of the lawsuit, the focus remains on strategic planning, providing information and support and the political education of parents.
"We're letting folks know that this is a long, hard fight," he said. "We have to be organized and strong on a national level to be contenders in this fight – define who and what we are."
Tamara Gorham's 13-year-old son is confined to a wheelchair and is an 8th-grader at Sharpe Health School in Northwest. The school is one of the 15 on the chopping block.
"I'm not happy at all. It's very disturbing because a lot of factors have not been considered," said Gorham, a medical receptionist at Children's National Medical Center in Northwest. "The school is close to Children's Hospital. Transportation, the way it's structured, and loading and unloading children in wheelchairs are not a problem at Sharpe."
Gorham, 39, said Henderson and other school officials did not consult with parents, Sharpe administrators, teachers or aides before deciding to move students to River Terrace Elementary School in Southeast. She fears the disruption the move will cause the children, and expressed concern that River Terrace residents may be resistant to Sharpe students being relocated there.
"It makes me go wild thinking about it," she said, as she tried to contain her irritation. "Plans have been made already. They never asked what properties would work best for us. They need to halt all plans, get with us and let us tell them what we need. We have a beautiful garden, a playground, and a brand new therapeutic pool for the children. They're telling us to make do."
Gorham said Sharpe has caring and attentive teachers' aides "who have been with our kids for many years" who will have to re-apply for their jobs. She said newcomers will likely not do what current staff does routinely such as wiping a child's mouth, or a 'trach', or wiping and changing soiled clothes.
"We have presented different options to them [DCPS]. They should combine Mamie D. Lee and Sharpe," she said. "They've thrown out so many excuses. Let us tell you where, let us tell you what we need. It's not fair, it's inconsiderate; they're not thinking about my child's safety, and they're not listening."
"They just say, 'they're all retarded, put them in the back away from everything. They're not giving us a lot of information; they have not been forthcoming. It's not fair and it's not right.'"
Del Pielago and a chorus of critics in D.C. and elsewhere, continue to insist that businesses that created tests, the corporate interests behind school reform and charter schools are about making money. In that quest, he said, they are also taking advantage of minority communities.
"This is all about the money," said del Pielago. "We're not seeing communities having access or input into the decision-making process. We're hearing this around the country. [DCPS] says it is working with the community ... but I'm not holding my breath."
"A lot of threads are unraveling. The way this corporate education reform is going, it's not working. There's a great deal of resistance. I think we're going to have a shift in thinking. We're working with folks around the country who are committed to fighting. There are very high stakes – either we lose or we keep neighborhood schools. Yeah, the fight is on," del Pielago said.