Advocates Say D.C. Charter Amendment Integral to School's Improvement
Feature Story by civilrights.org staff - 6/2/2006Most Americans would be shocked to discover that the children in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, are not guaranteed the right to a public education. By contrast, the constitutions of 48 states guarantee their children such a right.
Currently, there is no right to education in the District of Columbia charter, the city's version of a state constitution. On May 22, the District's City Council held a hearing to examine the proposed D.C. Education Rights Charter Amendment, which would make the right to a high quality, public education a fundamental right of every child in the district.
Karen McGill Lawson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, said that the D.C. school system "has been used as an example of what's wrong with public education, not what's right" for too long.
"Our capital city should play a leading role as an example of complete government-wide and community-wide commitment to high quality education for all children," said Lawson.
The D.C. school system is considered one of the most troubled in the country. Witnesses at the hearing called for the approval of the amendment, saying that it would be the long overdue step toward fixing D.C.'s broken school system.
The U.S. Department of Education effectively called the fiscal management of the D.C. school system the worst in the country, according to a May 24 Washington Post article. Enrollment has been dropping, programs are being cut, and 44 percent of D.C. residents do not have a high school diploma.
Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP, testified that while the federal government has almost always required that states include the right to a public education in their constitutions, it has failed to do the same in D.C.
Shelton said that it was up to the council to "correct this glaring omission."
Despite the amendment's potential to vastly improve public schools, opponents fear the possibility of lawsuits against the city if it fails to follow the amendment.
Supporters of the amendment point out that the litigation argument is overblown because the conditions that have generated lawsuits in other states are not applicable to Washington, D.C.
Most lawsuits seeking to enforce state constitutional requirements have been based on disparities in funding between affluent and low-income school districts. There would be no basis for such an "equity" suit in Washington because the city has only one school district with a fixed and equal per student funding formula for all schools, including the city's charter schools.
Furthermore, the amendment would not create specific rules that a court could enforce. There is no precedent of state courts using the right to a high-quality public education as a basis to define education standards or take away control of education from state and school officials.
The amendment was co-sponsored by a nine-member majority of the council, led by Kathy Patterson, chair of the Council's Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, and is supported by Mayor Anthony Williams, school superintendent Clifford Janey, and the Board of Education. Despite its wide support, observers expect at least one attempt to weaken the amendment.
Councilmember Jack Evans, who questioned the need for the amendment at the hearing, appears poised to attempt to remove the words "high quality" from the amendment at the Council's June 6 session. He claims that those words could subject the city to a flood of litigation.
But a review of lawsuits conducted for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law turned up only one lawsuit based on a "high quality" provision of a state constitution. That suit was dismissed by the Florida courts.
At a press conference announcing the introduction of the charter amendment, Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that D.C. "should have a public school system worthy of our nation's capital."
"It's time we all recognize that a quality public education is a fundamental civil right,' Henderson said.