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Empower DC Lawsuit Lands in Federal Court

Barrington M. Salmon | 4/10/2013, 11:46 a.m.

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.