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Civil Rights Complaint Filed against Philadelphia School District Over Teacher Imbalance

On March 8, 2004, the Education Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights, charging that the system of assigning teachers in Philadelphia public schools violates the civil rights of minority students.

As is the case in many American cities, minority students in Philadelphia are more likely to be taught by uncertified and/or inexperienced teachers than white students. The Education Law Center's complaint points out, for example, that in middle schools in Philadelphia in which 90% of the students are of color, only 79.8% of the teachers are certified. By contrast, in schools where a majority of students are white, 98.6% of the teachers are certified.

The complaint asserts that the school districts system of allowing more senior teachers to choose their assignments is a major cause of this disparity. The Education Law Center claims that by maintaining this system the Philadelphia school district is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandates that no person be denied a benefit of any program receiving federal aid on the basis of his/her race, color or national origin. According to the complaint, access to a certified teacher is the "benefit" being denied by the school district. In addition to violating civil rights laws, the complaint charges that the assignment system contravenes the federal "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act's stated goal of bringing more "highly qualified" teachers into minority schools.

The Education Law Center notes that the courts, education experts and even the Philadelphia school district itself, have recognized the problem of unequal distribution of teachers. It also notes that the school district recently unveiled a program designed to improve recruitment and retention of teachers. However, the complaint charges that the new plan has no specific proposal to address the disparity in certified teachers. The complaint suggests several possible solutions, including prohibiting certain transfers, providing incentives to teach in predominately minority schools and expanding a "site-based selection" program already in place in some schools.

The chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District, Paul Vallas, criticized the complaint as targeting the wrong actor, and he maintained that the district is attempting to remedy the problem. Vallas was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 9, 2004 as saying "There's no dispute that we have to have changes in this area. If they [the Education Law Center] want to put pressure on the teacher's union, then go sue the teacher's union."

The Office for Civil Rights has handled several complaints regarding unequal distribution of teachers. In Omaha, Nebraska, in response to a similar complaint, the school district agreed to adopt personnel policies to correct the imbalance. Similar settlements were achieved in Huntsville, Alabama and Syracuse, New York.


Prepared by Wendy C. Lecker, April 14, 2004