By David Jones
NEWARK N.J. (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Education said on Wednesday it is investigating claims that a plan to reorganize public schools in Newark, New Jersey, discriminates against black students.
A parent-led group in New Jersey's largest city has said that school closings and conversions to charter schools under the "One Newark" plan disproportionately affect black students.
"We can confirm that the Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether the Newark Public Schools’ enactment of the 'One Newark' plan at the end of the 2013-2014 school year discriminates against black students on the basis of race," an Education Department spokesman said in a statement.
The investigation began this month, the department said, declining to provide any further details.
Word of the investigation comes one day after the U.S. Justice Department said police in Newark have repeatedly violated civil rights and recommended appointment of an independent monitor.
Once a thriving manufacturing center, Newark is struggling with problems of urban blight and high crime.
The "One Newark" plan, announced at the end of last year by state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson, calls for the relocation and consolidation of one-quarter of all the city schools.
"One Newark" allows charter schools to operate in three city-owned facilities and will close the worst performing schools in the city of some 277,000 residents about eight miles west of New York City.
Slightly more than half of Newark's residents are black, according to U.S. Census results.
Critics say the plan is an effort to privatize schools, that underperforming schools should be fixed, not closed, and that those schools serve some of the most disadvantaged students.
A complaint filed by parents and a branch of Parents Unified for Local School Education, or PULSE, with the departments of Education and Justice in May said 51 percent of Newark students are black but 86 percent are affected by "One Newark."
White students make up about 8 percent but are less than 1 percent of the students directly affected, it said.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Sharon Stone, co-founder of PULSE, said parents are aware that existing schools are not providing quality education but said "One Newark" ignores the concerns of parents and removes resources from the local community.
Similar complaints were filed alleging discriminatory school closings in New Orleans and Chicago.
(Reporting by David Jones; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Eric Beech)