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Feds Investigating Whether 'One Newark' Schools Initiative is Discriminatory

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

NJ Spotlight
Quitman Street Community School in Newark, New Jersey (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

U.S. Department of Education confirms it has opened civil rights probe into city's controversial plan to reorganize public schools

Add the federal government to the roiling debate over the state’s “One Newark” plan for reorganizing that city’s schools.

The U.S. Department of Education yesterday confirmed that it had opened a civil rights investigation into the controversial plan launched by state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson to determine if it discriminates against African-American students.

The investigation is in response to a complaint filed in May by parent advocates who specifically cited the state-operated district’s planned closing of three schools that have predominantly African-American enrollment.

One of those schools -- Hawthorne Avenue School -- has since won a reprieve. But the One Newark plan as a whole has faced fierce community protest over its impact on neighborhood schools. The other two facilities cited in the complaint were Bragaw Avenue School and Roseville Avenue School.

Responding to NJ Spotlight’s inquiry, the federal department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) late yesterday sent the following statement:

“We can confirm that OCR is currently investigating whether Newark Public Schools’ enactment of the ‘One Newark’ plan at the end of the 2013-2014 school year discriminates against black students on the basis of race. OCR’s investigation began in July 2014. As it is an open investigation, we cannot share any further information.”

The advocates who filed the complaint said they learned of the investigation last week, and they plan a noontime press conference today at Newark’s City Hall.

But at least one lead player said the decision to investigate is only the first step.

“We are pleased that it is now open and merits investigation,” said Sharon Smith, a leader of PULSE, a Newark group that was among those that brought the complaint. “But now it is about making sure it is a thorough investigation.”

This type of federal investigation is not unheard of. Another probe was recently announced in Houston schools. A national group, the Advancement Project, has guided advocates -- including those in Newark -- in pursuing the complaints, and has provided legal support. Nationwide, the focus of the complaints has been the closing of schools, predominantly in urban districts.

In the letter sent by the federal DOE regarding Newark last week, the department only said that the Newark complaint “is appropriate for investigation.” It said that the decision to investigate “in now way implies the OCR has made a determination in regard to its merit.”

What comes of such investigations is hardly clear; they can take months if not years to complete, and can often lead to an agreement between the parties.

Smith’s group filed a similar complaint in 2013 about the Christie administration’s Newark school closures in general, and she said there has yet to be a response. “We are still trying to figure out what happened to that,” Smith said yesterday.

Efforts to reach either Anderson or the acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.

The ongoing controversy over the One Newark plan has caught the attention of the state overseers of the district as well. In renewing Anderson’s contract, Gov. Chris Christie announced earlier this month that he would create a local task force to monitor the One Newark plan. The members of the group have yet to be announced.

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