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April 05, 2016 Practice Points

U.S. DOE Reaches Resolution Agreement with Newark Public Schools Regarding School Closure

By Oscar Daniel Lopez

On December 10, 2015, Advancement Project and Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE) received notification that the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had reached a resolution agreement with Newark Public Schools (NPS). This agreement came about after OCR investigated a Title VI complaint which the Advancement Project and PULSE filed in May 2014. The complaint was based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It alleged that a series of school closures initiated by the state-appointed superintendent of NPS disproportionately impacted black students and that no educational justification existed for such closures.

Advancement Project and PULSE's investigation found that while black students were 51 percent of the student enrollment in NPS in the 2013–14 school year, they were 86 percent of students affected by school closures and conversions to charter schools at the end of the same school year. The complaint further alleged that school closures caused serious social and emotional harms to students affected and would not result in improved academic outcomes. Indeed, the closures led to a situation where black parents had even more burdens to overcome so that their children could receive an excellent education. For example, black parents were forced to fill out confusing enrollment applications with no guarantee that their children would be accepted to any school. Some parents were forced to fill out the applications more than once because their children were not accepted to any public school, and other parents with multiple children learned that their children would be forced to attend different schools. Because of a lack of transportation options, some parents were forced to send their children to schools on the other side of town, and elementary school children had to travel long distances on foot over highway overpasses and large intersections.

OCR's investigation supported the allegations. OCR determined that the number of black students and students with disabilities affected by school closings at the end of the 2011–2012 school year was "significantly disproportionate" as compared to white and other students. Significantly, OCR's preliminary review of the data indicated that NPS's actions "did not appear to afford the affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes."

The resolution agreement requires NPS to identify all students harmed by school closures and provide compensatory services to those students. The agreement outlines specific deadlines for NPS to develop assessment of harm and remedy plans. The harm analysis must consider school grades, attendance, discipline, test scores, distance and safety of transportation, overcrowding, access to facilities and resources, and delays in the provision of special education and/or related services and aids.

This is believed to be one of the first agreements from OCR seeking to address harms caused by school closures. This is a victory for the parents and students of Newark, but there is much left to be done. Advancement Project and PULSE will continue monitoring the implementation of the resolution agreement to ensure its fidelity and will continue their work with national coalitions like Journey for Justice to bring national attention to the disparate impacts that black and brown communities experience as a result of efforts to privatize public schools.

More information is available at the Advancement Project's website.

Oscar Daniel Lopez is with the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C.

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