A group of parents have filed a complaint against Seattle Public Schools with the state Attorney General’s Office over the district’s current and proposed gifted education program policies.
The complaint, filed Monday, alleges that the district is violating state law because it hasn’t made a “concerted effort” to address the racial imbalance of its advanced learning program, which enrolls mostly white and Asian students. It also claims that the district’s proposals to change the way services are currently offered would also break the law.
The appeal to the Attorney General’s Office follows months of public uproar over the fate of the district’s highly selective advanced learning program, called the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). In September, the district unsuccessfully proposed eliminating the “cohort” model, which segregates gifted students in their own classrooms at a network of select schools, and instead offer advanced instruction in all neighborhood schools. Another proposal to blend gifted learners with their peers at Washington Middle School last month also failed to get School Board approval (the vote was a tie, which means the measure does not pass.)
In both cases, board members said they wanted to see the district hold more community engagement before approving the measures.
“As with everything Seattle Public Schools does, our advanced learning work is focused on providing our students the best possible education,” SPS spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in reply to an email seeking comment on the complaint. The district has defended its proposals by pointing to the program’s long history of segregation. Officials say changing that legacy won’t work without a dramatic shift in the program.
Advanced instruction and equitable identification of low-income students as gifted is required by state law. The cohort model is not.
Nine people signed the complaint, including former Seattle School Board President Sue Peters.
The complainants argue that dismantling the cohort model at the district level would constitute a violation of federal law because some HCC students are also receiving legally guaranteed special education services. They also argue that ending HCC at Washington Middle would disproportionately affect access to advanced learning for students of color. Washington Middle is the HCC middle school campus for South Seattle, the most socioeconomically and racially diverse area of the city.
For decades, any proposed changes to advanced instruction in Seattle has come with considerable anxiety about quality.
“They want equity for everyone and providing the same opportunity,” said Howaida Shahin, a Washington Middle parent who signed the complaint. “But they are not doing this [by cutting the program].”
Former SPS attorney Shannon McMinimee said it’s unlikely the AG’s Office would wade into one school district’s policy. That’s a role reserved for the state education department.
McMinimee said another route would be to challenge the district’s proposals in federal or state court and seek an injunction to prevent any movement on the issue. But she said the group of parents, which calls itself Equity and Access to Support Every Learner (EASEL), would need to present more evidence for its claims — especially if the claim is that special education law would be violated if Seattle were to move to a neighborhood schools model for advanced learning.
Federal law generally assumes that students with disabilities should receive services in their neighborhood schools, she said.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the office generally doesn’t comment on pending cases.
A task force of community members is expected to deliver recommendations for how the district should move forward on advanced learning on Dec. 10. Eight days later, the School Board will meet to discuss the next steps for Washington Middle School.