Attempt To Halt Closure Of Underperforming New York City Schools Thwarted By State Judge

NEW YORK -- A New York judge's Thursday night decision clears the way for the New York City Department of Education to proceed with its plan to close over 20 underperforming schools and let charter schools share space with traditional public schools this coming school year.

The United Federation of Teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had sought to prevent the plan from moving forward on such a quick timeline, but New York State Supreme Court Justice Paul Feinman said the union and civil-rights organization had not made a compelling enough case to warrant a freeze on the program.

"There is no clear and convincing evidence that these low-performing schools could be so easily turned around," Feinman wrote in his ruling.

But the judge noted that the case against the city's Department of Education would continue.

The denial of an injunction “does not answer the ultimate questions presented by this lawsuit,” Feinman wrote. “The question of where the equities lie is not clear-cut, and the facts do not lean inexorably in the direction of either party.”

But the judge said that if the underperforming public schools were allowed to remain open, “students may be subject to substandard educational environments which will obviously cause them to be considerably harmed.”

In December, the department announced it would phase out or close 22 low-performing schools at the end of this past school year. Claiming that the department had not followed instructions required by legislation that allowed for the continuation of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over the city’s schools, the NAACP joined the UFT in filing suit in June to halt these closures.

The ruling's implications extend beyond city limits, with the closure or attempted transformation of underperforming schools serving as a signature Obama education policy. Just last week, the city trumpeted a deal reached with the union over teacher evaluations that would make 33 city schools deemed “persistently low-achieving” eligible for federal School Improvement Grants, which facilitate federally-sanctioned plans to overhaul low-performing schools.

Upon the suit’s initial filing, schools chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said he was "outraged" and promised to fight the case "tooth and nail" in court. He chided the plaintiffs for seeking to keep open failing schools and for "hold[ing] hostage" the 17,000 students slated to attend the charter schools in question. The NAACP took flack signing onto the suit, with some critics alleging that it failed to serve its constituents by defending the continuation of schools that underserved minority students.

Charter school sharing arrangements are often tense, with public school administrators wary of their new neighbors. In Thursday's ruling, Feinman wrote that the charter co-location plans "fulfill their obligation of completeness" under state law.

Feinman wrote that the injunction request is “based on their [the plantiffs’] fervent belief that, had these schools received the supports promised, they would have raised themselves up to such a level that closure would no longer be supportable.”

The suit reflects an ongoing area of tension between the city and the teacher's union. Last year, the UFT successfully prevented the closure of 19 low-performing schools on the basis of the administration’s failure to satisfy the same regulations targeted in this year’s suit.

This year's decision provided relief for the city, especially since it came the day the state approved 12 closure plans, according to GothamSchools, a blog that covers New York City schools. “I am incredibly heartened by the Court’s decision tonight,” Walcott said in a statement. He continued:

From the beginning of the Bloomberg Administration, we have said that a primary focus of our reform efforts would be to phase out schools that have failed our children year after year, and offer families new, high-quality options. Tonight, the court clearly stated that ‘if the failing public schools are not closed, students may be subject to substandard educational environments which will obviously cause them to be considerably harmed.’ I know this decision will come as great comfort and relief to the thousands of children who have been in limbo, wondering what the outcome of this case would be, and for that I am very happy."

The union was none too pleased by the decision, but pledged to fight on in court. 

"While Judge Feinman has declined our request for an injunction, his decision does not affect the underlying issues of fairness and due process in the school co-locations and closings that are part of this lawsuit,” a UFT spokesman said in a statement. “These issues remain to be resolved, and the UFT intends to continue to litigate this matter." He added that lawyers are studying next steps.