The Chicago Employment Law Blog

School Turnaround Program Leads To Racial Discrimination Lawsuits

The words "racism" and "discrimination" are probably giving the administrators and legal staff of Chicago Public Schools nausea at this point. Less than two weeks after a lawsuit alleged that a former principal's reforms at a Chicago school negatively impacted African-American students and staff, another lawsuit about reforms and racism has been served on the district, reports the Chicago Sun-Times.

For the last decade or so, CPS has carried out a number of "turnaround" programs at underperforming schools. For each school, the entire staff is sent packing and replaced with an entirely new team. The majority of these "turnarounds" have occurred at schools in the South and West Sides. These schools also employ the majority of African-American teachers.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all teachers fired in a series of ten turnarounds since June 2012, seeks reinstatement, lost wages, damages, and an independent monitor to prevent future discriminatory actions. The three named plaintiffs all had performance evaluations of satisfactory or better, though the school's academic performance as a whole is what led to the mass firings.

An interesting statistic that seems to back the claims of the lawsuit is that while 28 percent of tenured CPS teachers are African-American, 51 percent of tenured teachers fired in this year's turnarounds were African-American.

Though such a statistic might not be enough to win a lawsuit, smoking gun evidence is not easy to come by in racial discrimination claims. A common theory used in these cases is the disparate impact argument. When a policy that appears to be racially neutral on its face has a discriminatory impact, the burden falls on the employer to show that the practice is a business necessity.

For the affected teachers in Chicago, this seems to be a favorable strategy. Based on the statistics, the turnaround process does seem to be disproportionately affecting African-Americans. Unless CPS can show that the turnaround program, in its current form, is a necessity, they may be forced to abandon the program. One suggestion might be to reassign teachers with favorable evaluations to other schools instead of outright termination.

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