Federal district court rules that DC Public Schools’ school closure plan does not violate students’ equal protection or civil rights
Smith v. Henderson, No. 13-420 (D.D.C. July 18, 2014)
Abstract: A federal district court in Washington, D.C., has dismissed a suit claiming that D.C. Public Schools’ (DCPS) school closure plan violates minority parents’ and students’ Fifth Amendment equal protection rights and civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because the decision to close schools was made on the basis of race. The court concluded that some of the issues raised by the plaintiffs were policy questions, which are political in nature and not susceptible to legal resolution. Regarding the school closure policy, it found there was no evidence that the policy was applied in a racially discriminatory manner.
The district court, likewise, found no link between the school closures and the teacher performance pay program that reveals any intentional discrimination or racial animus. It also determined that there was no merit to the claim that the school closures were for the purpose of making room for charter schools. Finally, the court rejected the assertion that the line of federal court desegregation cases beginning with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), should be “stretched to prevent the closure of highly segregated, largely deserted, under-performing schools and to keep minority children from being transferred to higher-performing, less segregated schools nearby.”
Facts/Issues: A group of parents, whose neighborhood schools were closed, filed suit against DCPS alleging that the closings were discriminatory; that they had a disparate impact on poor and minority children; and that reforms like charter schools and performance pay for teachers will ultimately harm African American students in the District of Columbia.
Partially as a result of changing demographics and partially due to the rise of charter schools, Chancellor Henderson inherited several schools that were under-enrolled. She also knew that several schools lacked the academic programming that she believed all D.C. students should receive. Henderson proposed closing twenty DCPS buildings over the course of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. The majority of the schools slated to be closed operated at half capacity, and five schools were under 25% full. All of the schools to be closed sat in majority-minority, lower-income neighborhoods.
DCPS made various changes to its initial plan based on community feedback, including keeping open five schools originally proposed for closure. Plaintiffs claim in their brief that the five schools DCPS preserved contained more white students than the schools that were closed, although they provide no citation to support that proposition. All fifteen schools on the final closure list lie in neighborhoods were the students are disproportionately African American and Latino. Plaintiffs claim that this disparity is intentional, either because it is stark enough to be inexplicable on grounds other than race, or because it was motivated by discriminatory animus.
The plaintiffs’ suit alleged breach of contract, fraudulent representation, and violation of the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, the IDEA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and the D.C. Sunshine Act. They sought a preliminary injunction to bar implementation of the plan, which the court denied in May 2013. Thereafter, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint. DCPS filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint or in the alternative grant DCPS summary judgment, which was granted in part and denied in part in October 2013.
The only remaining parts of the plaintiffs’ suit are the claims under the Fifth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and DC Human Rights Act. This summary addresses only the equal protection and Title VI claims.
Ruling/Rationale: The district court granted DCPS’ motion for summary judgment on the equal protection and Title VI claims. The court began by pointing out that the “core problem” with the parents’ fight is that it is “one for the ballot box – not the courts.” It determined that many of the plaintiffs’ arguments were not suitable for judicial resolutions because they are political in nature. The court stated that “[w]hether charter schools, performance pay, and school turnarounds are worthwhile policy tools is a question for school superintendents and state legislatures. There is no governable legal standard for assessing the promise of those reforms.”
The district court turned to the plaintiffs’ discrimination claims under the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI. After highlighting that both claims required a showing of intentional discrimination, it emphasized that because “the school-closure plan is race neutral on its face, Plaintiffs must prove either that [DCPS’] plan has been applied differently depending on students’ race, or that it was actually motivated by discriminatory animus and has achieved its discriminatory goal.” It then detailed the three arguments the plaintiffs were making to demonstrate that the closings were discriminatory: (1) since the 1970s, DCPS’ school closure policy has been applied differently to white schools, which have been kept open, than to African American schools, which have been closed when under-enrolled; (2) the school closures were intended to fund performance bonuses for teachers in disproportionately white schools, and, therefore, the closings themselves were discriminatory; and (3) the closings were undertaken to create more room for charter schools.
Addressing the plaintiffs’ first argument, the court found that comparing DCPS policies and governance in the 1970s was an unproductive exercise because those currently responsible for running the district were not part of DCPS’ administration in the 1970s. It also pointed out that in the 1970s, DCPS was overseen by an elected school board and did not even have a chancellor, who is appointed by the mayor. It concluded: “Today’s school-closure criteria may well differ from whatever rubric was applied in the 1970s. On this record, no reasonable jury could find any useful connection between the events of the 1970s and today’s school closings.”
The court determined that even if the plaintiffs had been able to draw a link between the 1970s closures and the 2013 ones, the recent closures could not be construed as intentionally discriminatory because “it appears that significant numbers of both white and black schools have been closed when their facilities were under-utilized.” According to the district court, “The historic treatment of white schools and the current treatment of black schools, in other words, is not so different.” It concluded that “it is residential segregation, along with changing population patterns, that is largely to blame for the disparities in the closures,” and that “viewing the closure criteria as a pretext for discrimination is therefore implausible as a matter of law.” In addition, the court noted that the closures had realized a financial savings allowing DCPS “to meet at least one of its stated goals: ensuring that ‘[a]ll schools can offer robust programming.’” As a result, the court stated that “[n]o reasonable jury would view those changes as a threadbare façade for racial discrimination.”
As to the argument that the schools were closed to help fund performance bonuses for highly effective teachers, which is discriminatory because those bonuses are disproportionately awarded to teachers at white schools, the district court found the plaintiffs’ assertion was not supported by any evidence in the record. It added that even if the school were closed to fund the performance bonuses and the bonuses were disproportionately awarded to teachers at white schools, the plaintiffs would not prevail because they had failed to show that was as a result of intentional discrimination. The court pointed out that it appeared the “bonuses are awarded to teachers based on race-neutral performance metrics.”
The court found that the plaintiffs’ contention that other resources, such as certified teachers and upgraded facilities, are concentrated in predominantly white schools was in the nature of disparate impact that failed to demonstrate a “link between decisions to spend money renovating schools and racial animus – as opposed to basing those determinations on, say, the age of the facilities.” It also found the charter school argument without merit because the plaintiffs had offered no reason as to why the expansion of charter schools is discriminatory, beyond the assertion “that it seems sinister that there are no charters” in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Finally, the district court declined to follow the plaintiffs’ suggestion that it treat DCPS like the school districts involved in the line of cases addressing de jure segregation beginning with Brown. It pointed out that “what policymakers are grappling with here is the current state of de facto segregation in the city” and “[a]s a result, different standards apply.” It also noted that it is unlikely “that Brown and its progeny could properly be stretched to prevent the closure of highly segregated, largely deserted, under-performing schools and to keep minority children from being transferred to higher-performing, less segregated schools nearby.”
Smith v. Henderson, No. 13-420 (D.D.C. July 18, 2014)
[Editor's Note: In October 2013, Legal Clips summarized the district court's ruling in Smith v. Henderson, which allowed the suit to proceed on the equal protection, Title VI, and DCHRA claims.]