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Pro bono work costs Seattle schools plenty

  Legal Business  -   POSTED: 2007/07/11 15:43

For 200 years, Americans have built our democracy with the growth of universal public school education. Public schools are gathering places for democracy. They take in all children, from different walks of life, different families and different backgrounds. One crucial lesson that children learn in public school is that you can get along with different kids. Some may be richer, some poorer, some white, some black, some fast, some slow, some smart and some not so smart, all Americans.

In Washington, we have embraced that notion. But last month, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, set in motion the means to unravel the social compact of integrated public schools. In a case brought by one small group of Seattle parents - Parents Involved in Community Schools - the Supreme Court decided that the best way to remedy racial discrimination in public schools is to not address racial inequities. It endorses a game of pretend - if we pretend that racial discrimination isn't a historical and current fact of life in America, then it isn't!

Seattle has open choice for high schools. While the idea of choice itself resonates with parents, there has to be a formula for deciding who gets into schools that are oversubscribed. Factors for that included, first, if another sibling was already in the chosen school (sibling preference), and then race (if the school is way out of whack with district averages) and proximity to school.

Parents Involved in Community Schools did not like the schools that their kids were slated to attend. So they sued the school district. They didn't sue over sibling preference, or proximity, which they could have done. They chose to sue over the racial integration tie-breaker. This attracted support from the turn-back-the-clock crowd of people who oppose integration. The result is a whole lot more damage to racial integration across the country than the Parents Involved in Community Schools probably anticipated. But who knows - they seem to be happy about the outcome.

So does the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine (DWT), which took this case for the Parents Involved in Community Schools as pro bono - that is, they didn't charge for their services. Now they intend to request that the Seattle School District pay the bills for their work for re-segregation. They say they will plow this back into more pro bono work, but we don't need any more of this kind of community "service" litigation.

I am surprised DWT is embracing the Supreme Court decision - the firm has a big emphasis on diversity in its partnership and mentoring new minority colleagues. Former Gov. Gary Locke, who knows a lot about discrimination, is one of the partners. DWT states, "We believe that increasing the diversity of our attorneys and staff is central to our ability to fulfill our commitments to our clients and the community. In short, diversity is critical to DWT's long-term success."

After the Supreme Court decision, DWT stated that "School districts around the country should now focus on improving how and what they teach all children." That's nice, but hard to do when you are billing the Seattle School District for over $1 million - money that could go to teaching children. DWT did make a donation of between $5,000 and $10,000 to the Alliance for Education to support the Seattle Schools. Now that appears to be just a figleaf for legal greed.

In fact, if DWT is sincere about improving education across the country, the firm would acknowledge the need for full-day kindergarten, high quality pre-kindergarten, more school days in the year, lower student-teacher ratios, and funding for music, arts and athletics, to start with. It is a lot easier to have true color-blind education when the resources are available for high quality education for all children.

So here's an idea for DWT's next pro bono venture: Lobby the Legislature to meet the constitutional paramount duty of education for all children. They could start by proposing that legal services should no longer be exempt from the sales tax. That new revenue, close to $200 million a year, could be dedicated to the public schools, improving the educational opportunities for all children. That would be true pro bono work.

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