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Parents, Weingarten sue DOE, Klein over charter school siting

Parents and a slew of community leaders filed a lawsuit today against the Department of Education, demanding that the department reverse its decision to shutter three struggling elementary schools and replace them with charter schools. The parents say the decisions violated state law, because they happened without any consultation of the elected parent councils that have replaced community school boards.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers union; Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and a slew of parents of children at the schools are among the plaintiffs to the suit, which personally singles out Chancellor Joel Klein as a defendant. (Read the full suit here, in PDF form.)

Suing Klein and his department is a dramatic escalation of the ongoing saga over the city’s decision this year to shut down three elementary schools — two in Harlem and one in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn — and fill their buildings with charter schools instead. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate outside of the regular district bureaucracy, meaning they usually lack teachers unions and can only serve a limited number of students.

A central complaint in the lawsuit is that the changes would leave families in the schools’ neighborhoods with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them. Instead, the families could either go to a traditional public school in another neighborhood or they could enter the lottery that determines charter school admissions. The charter schools being installed in their old school building would give them preference in the lottery.

The lawsuit, written jointly by the United Federation of Teachers and the New York Civil Liberties Union, says the city’s decision “disenfranchises” families. It also accuses the city of violating state law by leaving a neighborhood without a zoned school without the approval of elected parent boards called Community Education Councils, or CEC’s. CEC’s are legally required to approve any change in school zones.

The city Department of Education had no comment today. A spokeswoman for the city’s law department, Elizabeth Thomas, said in a statement, “We have not yet received the legal papers. We will review them thoroughly upon receipt.”

In the past, the DOE has defended its decisions as the best way to serve children in Harlem and Brownsville. Just before the lawsuit became public, I spoke to John White, the city’s chief portfolio officer, about the three schools: P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 in Harlem and P.S. 150 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

White argued that school officials and the chancellor have an obligation to provide students with the best quality school they can find. He pointed out that while at P.S. 194, for instance, the most recent test scores show that about 60% of students cannot read on grade level, every charter school in the same district, District 5, that received a city report card last year got an A.

The charter school tentatively slated to enter P.S. 194, Harlem Success Academy 2, has not yet had students take state tests, and does not yet have a progress report. But city school officials point out that the school network is massively popular: Last year, 6,000 students applied for 500 seats at Harlem Success.

“The overwhelming evidence in New York City is that charter schools en mass are performing as well as or better than the larger set of our schools that have the same populations or the same challenges,” White said. “That’s just not something that we can disregard.”

Parents filing the lawsuit counter that what they deserve is to be included in the process of school improvement. “It’s not that we’re not aware of what things need to be improved,” said a parent leader at P.S. 194, Ta-Tanisha Rice. “But you didn’t even ask us as parents! You didn’t even ask the students themselves.”

Rice said she only learned that P.S. 194 was being shut down in a meeting in December, where White and the city’s chief parent engagement officer, Martine Guerrier, asked parents not whether they wanted the school to be shut down, but what kind of a school they wanted to create in its place. “You’re not considering our goals, you’re not considering our ideals for our students!” Rice said she told White and Guerrier that day.

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