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School Management        < Previous        Next >



Should We Sue Districts Where

Most Minority Kids Don't Graduate?


Q. We've been dealing for many years with urban school districts where less than half of the minority students, chiefly the black ones, have failed to graduate. We've been told to be patient - they're trying their best. Is that really all we can, and should, do? What about taking them to court to prove negligence or malpractice, or whatever it takes to get those kids under better management so that more of them can graduate and have a better chance?


Our nation has a long and proud history of using the courts to challenge injustice and force government to correct it. Case in point: the racial segregation lawsuits which forced public schools to integrate student populations by race and equalize resource allocations. More recently, there have been many lawsuits contending that states are not allocating an equitable amount of money to help low-income and minority students, whose needs are more expensive to meet than majority-culture, suburban students, or so those lawsuits claim.


So maybe you have a case: talk to a lawyer, and see.


One thing's in your favor if you decide to sue: that would be a civil case, and you'd only have to prove that there's been educational negligence based on "a preponderance of the evidence." If it were a criminal case, you'd have to prove negligence "beyond a reasonable doubt."


Still, it doesn't look too likely that such a lawsuit would win. But don't let that stop you. And there's precedent, too: in March 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the Palm Beach County, Fla., school district, claiming its low graduation rate is a violation of the Florida Constitution.


The ACLU claimed that almost a third of the students in the 175,000-student district do not graduate. The graduation rates of black and Hispanic students, which are 29% and 20% lower, respectively, than those of white students, further establish that the district is failing its students, it says.


Christopher Hansen, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation in New York City, said Florida voters in 1998 strengthened the state's constitutional guarantees of a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality" public education as part of a larger governance overhaul. In many other states, courts have determined that constitutional language about education is unenforceable, he said.


The lawsuit asks that the district be required to improve both the overall graduation rate and the rates for minority students, low-income students, and English-language learners, starting with the 2008-09 school year.


District officials protested that their schools are doing better for minority students than most other districts in the state. They also contested the calculations of the ACLU in figuring overall graduation rates, though the ACLU countered that their way was more accurate than the district's method.


Whether or not citizens turn to the courts to try to plug the racial achievement gap, remember that courts have limited options, too. If a judge orders massive new spending, it probably won't work, either. Case in point: the Kansas City public schools, where a court-ordered billion-dollar cash infusion failed to make the schools any better, and in fact, the district lost its accreditation AFTER it had spent all that extra cash. So beware "throwing money after this problem." That's an idea that has already had its day in court as far as attempting to make schools better . . . and it definitely lost the case.


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Homework: Browse the educational equity articles on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund website,


By Susan Darst Williams School Management 11 2008


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