In 2005, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs issued a report on the state of District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954), invalidating segregated schools in the District. Although Bolling held out the promise of dramatic improvements in education through the end of governmental segregation, as described in the 2005 report, racial isolation, substandard educational opportunities, and decrepit facilities remained a hallmark of DCPS fifty years after Bolling. District lawyers, using litigation, public advocacy, and partnerships with individual D.C. public schools, have helped lead efforts to address this fundamental civil rights issue.
Public School Governance
For decades, improvement in D.C. public schools was hindered by fragmented governance that fostered a blame game in which nobody was held accountable for the failure of D.C. schools. Prior to 2007, the Board of Education and superintendent had responsibility for educational programs but did not control the amount of funds appropriated for the schools, while the mayor and council had responsibility (subject to congressional oversight) for public school appropriations but did not control educational programs or the internal allocation of public school funds. This fragmentation permitted all those with some responsibility for public education in the District to point fingers at each other for continuing problems plaguing our schools.
For a decade, District lawyers, led by the Lawyers’ Committee, publicly advocated for a change in this governance structure, issuing public reports and testifying before the District Council. In 2007, the mayor proposed and the council enacted a fundamental change in the governance of the District’s public schools, vesting authority for school programs, facilities, and budgets largely in the mayor, eliminating uncoordinated control over D.C. public schools, and establishing a single point of accountability for their improvement.
The 2005 Lawyers’ Committee report recounted the decrepit conditions of D.C.’s public schools: School buildings were, on average, over seventy-five years old. Many suffered from leaking roofs; broken windows; crumbling walls, floors, and ceilings; and old and unreliable plumbing, wiring, and heating systems. Children often tried to avoid using school bathrooms altogether.
Past efforts to address school facilities issues had focused on litigation. A 1992 lawsuit found 5,695 total fire code violations throughout D.C. public schools, the vast majority of which were deemed to be life-threatening. A D.C. superior court judge issued injunctive relief, requiring the school system to remedy the violations. Although this and other lawsuits addressed the most egregious facilities issues, they did not remedy the overarching problem—the lack of public attention and political will needed to modernize the District’s dilapidated school buildings.
To address this broader issue, the Lawyers’ Committee and others again engaged in concerted public advocacy, including public reports, legislative testimony, and appearances on local media and at public rallies. As a result of this advocacy and the 2007 governance reform, the District has embarked on an ambitious $3.5 billion program to modernize the District’s schools. From 2007 to 2010, thirteen schools and thirty-three athletic fields and playgrounds were fully modernized. In addition, twelve schools had roofs replaced, sixteen received major repairs to heating systems, seventy-five underwent significant plumbing work, thirty-five had electrical work done, and more than 9,000 work orders for health code violations were completed.
Federal law requires that students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education designed to meet their individualized needs, in the least restrictive environment. D.C. legal services providers, such as the Children’s Law Center and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, assisted by pro bono lawyers, provide direct representation to children and families to secure the services necessary to improve educational outcomes. In a 1998 lawsuit, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found DCPS in violation of federal law due to its failure to hold timely due process hearings and subsequently implement decisions rendered from those hearings. Three years after the 2007 education reform legislation, DCPS reported to the court a timeliness rate of 90 percent and just six remaining cases in the backlog over ninety days overdue (compared to 600 cases in the backlog in June 2007).
Partnerships with Public Schools
The Lawyers’ Committee operates a project to bring lawyers into public education by creating partnerships between law firms and individual D.C. public schools. Currently, over two dozen law firms and law departments sponsor partnerships. The partnership firms provide multiple resources, including tutoring, mentoring, and peer mediation programs. They offer a variety of other resources as well, including technology training for students and school staff, computer networking or support, fund-raising support, summer jobs for students, and field trips. They also sponsor a systemwide program, Geo-Plunge, a fun program designed to improve children’s appreciation for and knowledge about U.S. geography. In November 2011, 270 children from forty-five D.C. public schools gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for the seventh annual GeoPlunge Tournament.
Rod Boggs is the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Ron Flagg is a partner at Sidley Austin LLP and immediate past president of the District of Columbia Bar.