The history of legal action in DC’s schools is key to understanding the history of legal action in public education in America—as lawsuits brought here were on the vanguard of upholding education rights nationwide. On Education Town Hall on Thursday, January 10, 2019, two guests—Mary Levy and Kent Withycombe—talked about this rich history and its connections to DC’s public schools today.
Kent Withycombe is the director of the Public Education Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, which partners law firms and businesses with DCPS Title I schools for tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment as well as provides guidance on issues of education equity through litigation and policy advocacy.
Mary Levy is a budget analyst as well as a lawyer and parent of DCPS alumni. She has been counsel to Parents United litigation and has spent decades analyzing DCPS budgets, including most recently completing a study of teacher retention.
On the show we started by talking about the inequitable resources for schools with black students historically in DC, and how that was exacerbated by the fact that until 1973, DC had no locally elected officials with control over the city’s affairs.
There were several lawsuits brought at the end of the 1940s against the segregated system of schools in DC, which had at their core two issues that would become key in Brown v. Board: assignment of black students to black schools only and the inferiority of the schools (and the experience of them) for black students. For activists pursuing those cases, there was a growing realization that despite some legal victories, until the idea behind separate but equal was successfully challenged, there would always be issues of equity.
In DC, Gardner Bishop was a parent of a student at Browne junior high in the 1940s, which was a black school that was wildly overcrowded and in poor condition—while the same students were barred from attending nearby white schools, which were underenrolled and in better condition. Bishop organized fellow parents to boycott Browne, which students attended in shifts, which resulted in shorter instruction times for black students. Although several (decrepit and closed) white schools were made available for Browne students eventually, those schools were not close to Browne, so the result was that Browne students were forced to commute between classes—leading to several lawsuits against the city. (Barber)
Carr v. Corning was one of the lawsuits resulting from the Browne protests and was decided in 1950 in favor of the segregated system of DC’s schools, prohibiting black kids from attending white schools. This lawsuit was brought by a girl, Margurite Carr, who tried to integrate the white-only Eliot Junior High (now Eliot-Hine), which was underenrolled. Carr herself attended Browne junior high in double shifts, then attended Dunbar HS in triple shifts. (We discussed this on Education Town Hall in November. (Appellate)
In the wake of the Browne protests (and the court decisions in the related cases that upheld the doctrine of separate but equal), Gardner Bishop worked with NAACP lawyers, including Charles Houston and James Nabrit, to bring another lawsuit, Bolling v. Sharpe. On September 11, 1950, Gardner Bishop escorted Spottswood Bolling Jr. along with 10 other black students to the brand new Sousa junior high, which was built for white students. They were turned away—and the lawsuit brought as a result was decided on the same day as Brown v. Board, with a ruling that said separate public schools in DC for white and black students were a violation of due process. (NB: Sousa junior high is now a national historic landmark because of that 9/11 in 1950; Bolling was decided separately from Brown because DC was not a state. Sousa)
But as Mary Levy points out, after Brown, schools did not desegregate immediately nor did inequities vanish. As a result, by the time Julius Hobson filed his first case against de facto segregation in DC, in 1966, the city’s school inequities along racial lines were obvious and painful. Here is what Hobson wrote in 1970 of the situation, in his pamphlet, “The Damned Children”:
“In Washington, neighborhoods with the lowest average incomes are primarily Black, and neighborhoods with the highest average incomes are primarily White.”
“As income level goes up, the reading levels of children go up. In the poorest neighborhoods 96% of the schools reported that their children read below the national norm, and that the average expenditure per pupil was about $388. In the richest neighborhoods 94% of the elementary schools reported reading scores above the national norm. The average expenditure per pupil for the richest neighborhoods amounted to some $435.”
“In schools with honors tracks for the school year 1965-66 . . . 70% of the White children in the public elementary schools at that time were in schools with honors tracks, while only 16% of the Black children were in schools with honor tracks.”
A statistician, DCPS parent, and president of the Slowe PTA before the Brown decision (Slowe is now a charter school), Hobson was appalled how, even after the Brown decision, black kids in DC were often put on a separate track from white children, such that they received less prepared teachers, less college preparatory classes, and were unable to change those circumstances at the schools they attended.
On that basis, he sued DC twice—in 1966 and 1970—and won both times. (Carl Hansen was the white superintendent of the DC schools.) The biggest change resulting from his lawsuit was abolishment of the “track” system of funneling mainly white kids to college preparatory classes. Hobson was hired by the city in the wake of the first decision to ensure that the city complied with the court’s ruling. When he discovered that the city was not in compliance, he sued again—and won again. But as Mary Levy points out, many of the pieces of those winning decisions were never enforced in DC to this day. (Hobson was elected to one term in the city council and died of cancer in 1977. Case)
Almost at the same time, a class action (Mills v. Board of Education) was brought by DC parents whose children were not provided education and educational services because of their disabilities. The decision in 1972 found that the children were being denied their educations unconstitutionally, which led to a host of legislation nationwide to ensure equal rights for the disabled under the law, including the current federal IDEA law. (Mills)
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, the citizens’ group Parents United brought lawsuits to address thousands of fire code violations in DCPS schools and ensure nurses were available in all schools. Among other things, one result of that successful litigation was to bring attention to the decrepit physical state of most DCPS schools, leading to a massive capital investment program still underway. As Mary Levy noted, the group decided to pursue the litigation for fire code violations, despite the fact that many DC public schools were in terrible condition for other things as well (leaking roofs, unsecured doors, etc.). The judge ruled in the favor of the plaintiffs, but the remedies were complicated by the fact that schools started late several times to make the needed repairs—prompting the council to step in and finally recognize the need for comprehensive modernizations rather than individual fixes.
In 2013, EmpowerDC sued the city, alleging that the DCPS school closures that year disproportionately affected black students. The judge in the case ruled that although this was the end result, it wasn’t intentional and thus ruled in favor of the city. Levy noted that the prior closures, in 2008, did not provide better programs or teacher/student ratios for students at the closed schools—as promised. The same was true in 2013—along with the fact that all of the closures provided a lot of disruption and saved no money.
We also discussed the legal landscape of our charter schools, with respect to the School Reform Act of 1996 and the current litigation regarding their funding, which alleges that the city is not allowed to amend the School Reform Act.
In conclusion, we discussed ways forward, including better funding for schools especially in the wake of no improvements in student performance after mayoral control, which suggests we have to pay more attention to the effects of poverty. We also discussed the need to preserve a system of neighborhood schools of right, which is entirely left out of the current zeitgeist concerning the portfolio model of schools and a STAR rating that compares them like movies or restaurants.
— Valerie Jablow