A George Soros-backed advocacy group filed complaints in three cities alleging that charter schools are racist.
The Advancement Project is asking the Justice Department to investigate the closures of failing public schools in New Orleans, Chicago, and Newark on the grounds that the closings are racially motivated.
The group, whose mission is to dismantle "structural racism" and promote "racial justice," filed complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act on behalf of "Journey for Justice," a coalition of grassroots organizations supported by teachers unions.
"The coalition has come together because, across our communities, education ‘reformers’ and privatizers are targeting neighborhood schools filled with children of color, and leaving behind devastation," the organization wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, attached to the New Orleans complaint.
"By stealth, seizure, and sabotage, these corporate profiteers are closing and privatizing our schools, keeping public education for children of color, not only separate, not only unequal, but increasingly not public at all," they said.
The organization compared charter schools to prisons.
"Adding insult to injury, the perpetrators of this injustice have cloaked themselves in the language of the Civil Rights Movement," the Advancement Project wrote. "But too many of the charter and privately-managed schools that have multiplied as replacements for our beloved neighborhood schools are test prep mills that promote prison-like environments, and seem to be geared at keeping young people of color controlled, undereducated, and dehumanized."
The complaint asks for an investigation into "racially discriminatory school closings," and for the DOJ to stop the closures of five public schools in New Orleans. The group also wants a moratorium on school closings.
The complaint admits that all the schools the Advancement Project is fighting to remain open are failing. On page 10, a list of the schools shows that two received F grades in the 2011-2012 school year, the remaining three received a D+, D, and D-.
Harry Belafonte, who has compared the billionaire philanthropist David and Charles Koch to the KKK and called former President George W. Bush the "greatest terrorist in the world," sits on the organization’s board of directors.
Journey for Justice Alliance is also allied with the Chicago Teachers Union, American Federation of Teachers, and Teachers for Social Justice.
The Advancement Project argues that charter school advocates used Hurricane Katrina to plot "behind closed doors" to open more charters, independently run schools that receive public funding. Teachers at charter schools are often not unionized.
"The ‘New Orleans experiment’ has failed, and African-American students have borne the brunt of this failure," the complaint claims.
However, Louisiana posted a record-high graduation rate in 2012 at 72.3 percent, New Orleans leading the way with 77.8 percent of its students graduating. The city has been steadily increasing its graduation ranks since 2004, when only 54.4 percent of its students graduated. New Orleans has the highest charter school enrollment in the nation, at 79 percent.
Gov. Bobby Jindal (R.) touts his state’s education reform, which includes expanding charters and his Scholarship Program that allows students to flee failing public schools and attend private ones with a voucher. The vast majority of voucher awards go to minority students.
Jindal helped remove the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Louisiana, and increased K-12 education spending from $3.13 billion in January 2008 to $3.44 billion in July 2013. He requested an additional increase of $102.8 million in his budget this year.
The Recovery School District, a special district that manages chronically low-performing schools in the state, is the subject of the complaint. The district defended its policies as promoting civil rights.
"Over the last eight years, the schools in New Orleans have made tremendous progress by any academic measure—ACT scores, student achievement, graduation rate," the district said in a statement. "In 2005, over 60 percent of our students attended failing schools. Today only 5 percent of students city-wide attend failing schools."
"It is critical to insist on the civil rights of every child, and there is no doubt New Orleans is closer to assuring those rights than it was a decade ago," they said.
While antagonistic to voucher programs, the Obama administration has been generally favorable to charter schools, making it unlikely the DOJ will meet the Advancement Project’s demands.
The Department of Education provided $242 million for the Charter Schools Program in 2013, and Secretary Arne Duncan has said that high-performing charters have "irrefutably demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels."
Charter schools also have bipartisan support in Congress, with the House of Representatives passing a bill to expand the charter school program last week.