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DOE cleared of one civil rights charge while another one stalls

Students and teachers are off for the summer, but the city Department of Education’s legal office was kept on high alert this week.

First, lawyers received word that discrimination charges against the city’s high school admissions process would be dismissed by a federal civil rights office. Then, StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group with close ties to the Bloomberg administration, announced it would slap the city with a new complaint, alleging inequity in the way teachers are distributed teacher quality in the city.

So far, that complaint has yet to be filed, three days after the group organized dozens of people to protest the issue on the department’s steps at Tweed Courthouse. A StudentsFirst NY spokeswoman said the group’s lawyers were still reviewing the complaint, but she would not say if there are still plans to file it at all.

If so, it would be at least the fourth discrimination charge filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in the last year. A complaint against the policies for admission into top-tier high schools and for closing schools were also submitted.

The dismissed complaint had been filed in May by the Education Law Center on behalf of parents and education advocacy groups. It alleged that the city discriminated against some students on the basis of their race or ethnicity by using an admissions process that resulted in the students being more likely to end up at schools with large numbers of high-need students.

The center’s complaint recommended that the city address the issue by limiting the number of high-need students admitted into all schools.

But the evidence was not strong enough to prompt an investigation, civil rights officials said in a letter this week.

“Rather than providing any specific information to support that the NYC DOE’s admission process resulted in African American and Hispanic high school students being assigned to schools with high concentrations of students with ‘high needs,’ you merely asserted that the admissions process lacked “controls” to ensure that such high needs students were not disproportionately assigned to any school,” the letter reads.

Wendy Lecker, an attorney for the Education Law Center who filed the papers, said that an appeal was possible.

“We disagree with the letter and we will be discussing next steps with our clients,” Lecker said.

The city’s high school admissions process, designed to achieve the highest mutual preference between students and schools they apply to, has received accolades for its innovative approach to school choice. Every year, eighth-graders rank up to 12 high schools that they would like to attend and the city’s more than 500 high schools rank the students who apply, in accordance with criteria that the schools themselves set. Then the city runs an algorithm and students are matched with a school.

But that approach has been under scrutiny. An audit by Comptroller John Liu found that the process had lax oversight, allowing some selective schools to pick students who hadn’t met certain requirements. In addition, the audit revealed that schools weren’t adhering to the admissions criteria that they publicized in the city’s annual high schools directory.

The department seems to have recognized areas of improvement in its admissions process and begun addressing them. For instance, selective schools with unfilled seats were assigned students, some with disabilities, who did not meet the usual admission standards. City officials said it was to force the schools to serve higher numbers of special education students.

A department spokeswoman said that the city had not received formal dismissal papers and would not comment. She also declined to comment on StudentsFirst NY’s charges.

If that complaint is filed, it might have an equally tough job spurring a federal probe. A press release sent out earlier this week by StudentsFirst NY said that its complaint would hinge on its own research, which found that a higher rate of low-rated teachers worked in schools with poor student populations. But there is not a strong correlation between those schools and their performance on the city’s progress reports. For instance, two schools with a high percentage of “unsatisfactory” teachers received A grades on their progress reports. Conversely, some schools with low marks did not have any unsatisfactory teachers at all.

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