Suit: Philly school-closing policy an attempt to "dismantle traditional public schools"

Posted: June 07, 2012

A group of city parents whose children's North Philadelphia public school is scheduled to shut for good next week have filed a federal lawsuit to try to stop the closing.

The lawsuit, recently filed by several Harrison Elementary School parents and by District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, argues that children will be adversely impacted by the closing. Many of the union's members are Harrison parents.

The suit blasts what it calls a strategy of "flooding the area of North Central Philadelphia with charter schools."

It describes school closings as a "calculated effort to privatize the education of the poorest students," adding, "There has been no effort to address the underlying issues, such as changing reading programs every 3-4 months and assigning new, inexperienced teachers to the classrooms of the economically disadvantaged."

Harrison, at 1012 W. Thompson St., is one of eight schools the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted in March to close. Current Harrison students — there are about 150 — would attend Ludlow or Spring Garden, each of which is less than a mile away.

The parents seek a preliminary injunction to halt the closings, citing potential harm to students covered under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Improvement Act; the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the Constitution; the Pennsylvania constitution; and the state public school code.

The suit is backed by State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, a Democrat who represents North Philadelphia. Thomas, in an interview, said the neighborhood had been unfairly targeted, with three schools — Harrison, Wanamaker, and William Penn — having been closed or targeted for closing in recent years.

"The School Reform Commission has approved an explosion of charters without any regard to how the charter school was going to complement or supplement existing schools, and without dealing with the issues of safety and security for these kids," Thomas said.

There are eight charter schools close to Harrison, and that has "depleted the academic diversity of students available to attend the Harrison School as well as state subsidies … making them an underperforming school," the suit says.

Thomas said the SRC "has given little attention to providing all kids with an equalization of opportunity and education."

The suit contends that special-education students would be particularly harmed by the closing. More than 22 percent of Harrison students have special educational needs, and the suit contends that no provisions had been made for them at Ludlow or Spring Garden Schools.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district does not comment on pending litigation.

But he said special-education students at closing schools would be offered appropriate placement at other district schools.

The suit also raises concerns about students' physical welfare, given that they will have to cross dangerous neighborhoods to attend their new schools, and also points out that Harrison has a new library and computer lab and that Ludlow and Spring Garden do not have such amenities.

Named as defendants in the suit are the Philadelphia School District, the state Education Department, and the Mayor's Office of Education. Mayor Nutter's spokesman also cited a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Henry Nicholas, 1199C president, said it was important for his union to get involved.

Nicholas is wary of charter schools, which "have not been anything that I cheer. They are not building charter schools in the neighborhoods where they fund schools correctly."

Apart from the eight closings announced in March, the district and SRC have announced plans to close 64 more schools by 2017 — 40 of them in 2013.

The parents' take?

"The School District, in collusion with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, is attempting to dismantle traditional public schools to privatize public education through charter schools and garner support for the governor's school-voucher initiative," the suit said.

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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