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Charter Schools Suing D.C. Advance Case

WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge advanced most of a challenge by charter schools that call funding by District of Columbia inadequate.

The District of Columbia Association of Chartered Public Schools teamed with two Washington charter schools last year in a lawsuit that accused the district of giving charter schools less funding than it does regular public schools.

Claiming that the district regularly sends funds to D.C. public schools without using the funding formula outlined in the School Reform Act, the charter schools said students in public schools thus get more money than students in the city's charter institutions.

Though D.C. moved to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan found it too early Thursday to decide assess the congressional intent to make that determination.

Chutkan did rule, however, that the charter schools do not have a case under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, since that provision is inapplicable to congressional actions that govern Washington exclusively.

Chutkan found the district clause, not the supremacy clause, determines what the "supreme" law of the land is in Washington.

"Acts of Congress applicable exclusively to the district do not preempt local legislation because they are the supreme law of the land under the supremacy clause, but instead because they are the 'supreme' law of the district under the district clause," the 32-page opinion states.

To make its claims the Home Rule Act allows the D.C. Council to change parts of the School Reform Act, the district pointed to cases in which courts have supported the city council's invalidation of acts of Congress that regulated Washington.

The schools took issue with these cases, pointing out that all came from a time before Washington had its own city council, and the Home Rule Act explicitly allowed Washington's city council to repeal acts passed before it took effect.

But Chutkan ruled courts in the past have decided the council can invalidate acts of Congress from before the Home Rule Act for a different reason altogether.

"The salient difference between the facts there and the facts here is that in those cases, there was no need to analyze Congressional intent regarding the D.C. Council's delegated authority," Chutkan wrote. "Before 1975, the D.C. Council as a semi-independent, popularly elected legislative body) did not exist." (Parentheses in original.)

It is unclear if Congress' intended to allow the city council to amend the School Reform Act, Chutkan ruled in denying the district's motion to dismiss the schools' challenge under the Home Rule Act.

"At this stage of the proceedings, it is enough to find that plaintiffs have alleged facts which, if true, raise their right to relief above the level of mere speculation," the 32-page opinion states.

In addition to advancing the Home Rule Act claim, Chutkan also refused to dismiss the charter schools' claim under the School Reform Act.

Stephen Howard Marcus, who represents the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools in the case, said Chutkan's ruling might not have much impact on how the case is litigated going forward, and might even make the case move faster.

Marcus said he expects the case to be resolved by summary judgment sometime in the next year.

A representative for the D.C.Office of the Attorney General called Chutkan's ruling a "win," but also said the dismissal of the Supremacy Clause claim does not materially change how the case will move forward.

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