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Philadelphia Schools Shortchange Minorities, Court Rules

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A Pennsylvania state court has ordered an overhaul of the Philadelphia school system to address a long list of practices found to shortchange black and Hispanic students.

The district school board last week announced that it would appeal the ruling, however, because the court provided no means to pay for the changes. Local leaders have tended to oppose tax increases to fund the schools.

The scathing 61-page opinion issued this month by Judge Doris A. Smith of Commonwealth Court slapped down almost every argument offered by the district and ruled that it had failed to desegregate or to provide poor and minority students with equal educational opportunities.

The court record, she wrote, "amply demonstrates'' that Philadelphia's black and Hispanic students have been denied equal access to, among other benefits, the best qualified and most experienced teachers, equal resources and physical facilities, and advanced or special-admissions academic-course offerings.

Judge Smith rejected the district's assertion that disparities in educational achievement were irrelevant to the desegregation case. Such differences were "the paramount and most fundamental issues presented,'' she wrote.

Citing a 1983 desegregation agreement in which the district said it would address educational disparities as well as racial isolation, Judge Smith said the district "must and shall provide the quality education which all children within its schools have a right to expect.''

The decision drew praise from a coalition of parents and local minority groups that had intervened in the case. Michael Churchill, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia who represented them, said, "The judge has said what is common--which is using poverty as an excuse for not teaching students--is unlawful.''

Closing Achievement Gap

Judge Smith said she will appoint a "master'' or team of experts to develop, with public input, a desegregation plan that will bring the district into compliance with the law.

Specifically, the judge called for:

  • Programs and strategies to boost the achievement of students in overwhelmingly minority schools, and incentives for attracting better teachers to work with them;
  • Plans for instituting or expanding preschool and full-day-kindergarten programs, as well as recommendations for the expansion of the school day or year;
  • Plans for expanding magnet and special-admissions programs and increasing the voluntary transfer of students to promote desegregation; and
  • Recommendations for relieving crowded schools, combating security and safety problems, building new facilities in integrated neighborhoods, and encouraging parents to participate in their children's education.

Ruled Out Busing

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission had brought suit against the district in 1970 under a state law considered far less tolerant of de facto segregation than is the U.S. Constitution.

In reaching her decision, Judge Smith relied heavily on testimony and evidence submitted by the interveners, who sought a voice in the case last spring after Judge Smith considered implementing a mandatory-busing plan proposed by a court-appointed team of desegregation experts. The judge subsequently ruled out using forced busing, an idea that had sparked a public uproar and was criticized as unlikely to address academic achievement. (See Education Week, April 28, 1993.)

The district's own data showed that black and Hispanic students tended to have much lower achievement scores, worse grades, and poorer graduation rates than did white students. They also attended the most decrepit and unsafe schools and had the least experienced teachers and the least access to advanced academic tracks and specialized schools and programs.

Although more than half of the district's students attend schools that are at least 90 percent white or minority, the district has continued to spend far too little on desegregation, Judge Smith said, and has made no effort to secure additional funding from the city or state.

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