Judge tosses discrimination claims involving Delaware all-girls charter school facing closure

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DOVER, Delaware — A federal judge in Wilmington on Thursday dismissed a discrimination lawsuit against Delaware education officials filed on behalf of students at an all-female charter school trying to stave off a second state-ordered closure.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Stark granted the Department of Education's request to dismiss the lawsuit, which was prompted by the state's decision to revoke the charter of predominantly black Reach Academy in New Castle. He also denied a request by the plaintiffs for permission to file an amended complaint.

State officials say the decision to close Reach was based on its poor academic performance.

In the most recent year, the school's academic rating just narrowly made it to "does not meet the standard," having previously been rated as "falls far below the standard."

The plaintiffs argued among other things that Reach was judged more harshly than other struggling schools, including the all-male Prestige Academy charter school in Wilmington, and that it was unfair to close Reach while allowing Prestige, the state's only all-male charter school, to remain open.

But Stark said the plaintiffs had not shown that the decision to revoke Reach Academy's charter at the end of this school year was based on racial or gender discrimination.

"Plaintiffs have not alleged that Reach's charter was not renewed on account of it being an all-female school," the judge wrote. "Having failed to allege purposeful discrimination, plaintiffs have not stated a claim for gender discrimination by simply alleging that defendants lack an exceedingly persuasive reason for allowing the maintenance of an all-male charter school while closing the only all-female charter school."

Stark also rejected the idea that the state's reliance on standardized test scores to evaluate schools has a racially disparate impact on black students and is thus racially discriminatory.

DOE officials said they were pleased with the ruling and it allows them to move forward on a smooth transition for Reach Academy students and staff.

In January, Stark had refused to issue a preliminary injunction sought by attorneys for Reach Academy, saying they had not shown that they were likely to succeed with any legal claims against state officials. That ruling came three days after a state court judge declared that students do not have a protected property interest in attending the school of their choice until graduation. That ruling involved New Moyer Academy, a failing, predominantly black charter school in Wilmington.

Stark noted in his January ruling that circumstances had changed since he granted a preliminary injunction last year that kept Reach Academy open for this school year. Under state law at that time, officials were not allowed to consider any new applications for single-gender charter schools. That meant that if Reach were to close, there was no possibility for another all-girls charter school in Delaware. But after Stark's injunction last year, Delaware lawmakers amended the charter-school law to allow consideration of another all-girls charter school if Reach Academy were to close.

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