US lawyers in New Orleans to talk with both sides in 2014 schools civil rights complaint

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NEW ORLEANS — Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Education have been in New Orleans this past week investigating a year-old complaint alleging racial inequities in the city's public schools — most of which are run by the state as the result of a takeover following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The coalition of groups that filed the complaints and state education officials confirmed that attorneys from the department's Office of Civil Rights were in the city to gather information on the complaint that was filed last May. In response to an emailed query, the department issued an email statement confirming an investigation but gave no details.

Complaints were filed by the Journey for Justice Alliance and Advancement Project, two groups representing organizations of students and parents in New Orleans, Chicago and Newark, New Jersey.

Among the allegations in New Orleans: Poorly performing schools with higher percentages of black students are more likely to be closed than schools with higher white enrollment; and, while all public schools in New Orleans are open to enrollment for students from throughout the city, white students are disproportionately enrolled at higher performing schools.

Karran Harper Royal is a leader of one of the groups that filed the complaint, the Coalition for Community Schools. She said federal attorneys spent part of last week talking to public school students and families affected by school closures.

"I feel confident that they're being very thorough in their investigation," Royal said.

Patrick Dobard, head of the state agency that runs most public schools in New Orleans, said the agency provided the attorneys with information on the application process aimed at giving all students a choice of where to attend school.

Dobard heads up the Louisiana Recovery School District. The RSD is tasked with taking over and improving failing schools in Louisiana. It was given control of most New Orleans public schools in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and has since put the nearly 60 schools it governs in the hands of independent charter organizations. About 20 other public schools remain under the authority of the Orleans Parish School Board. Most of those schools are now charters as well.

The state takeover and the heavy reliance on charters is being held up as a model of reform by supporters who say it has resulted in improving student performance.

Critics say the takeover has diminished New Orleans voters' voice in the running of schools and that the closures of some schools and chartering of others have disrupted schools that were important neighborhood social institutions.

Dobard said Friday that graduation rates and college enrollment for students in the city, where most public school students are black, have been improving steadily.

"I feel like we were able to show that RSD, we've always served a population of students that is almost 100 percent African-American and we've protected the civil rights of those young people, probably more than anyone in the United States."

He also noted that some of the higher performing schools still under control of the local school board are not yet part of a city-wide, simplified enrollment system allowing parents to fill out a single application listing the schools they would most like their children to attend. Getting all schools into that system will help boost minority enrollment at the higher performing schools, Dobard said.

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