In 2013, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education closed 47 public elementary schools in the largest wave of school closures in Chicago's history. As the number of children decreased in Chicago, the CPS Administration justified the closings by citing the underutilization of schools and a one billion dollar city deficit. By concentrating limited resources in a smaller number of schools, the CPS Administration estimated that CPS would save $430 million over 10 years. The closings were controversial because they disproportionately affected minority and low-income students. In response, the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School wrote a letter of allegation to the United Nations claiming a violation of human rights. Most noticeably, it examined the school closings through the lens of the right of education enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Given education's crucial role in accessing other human rights, I want to further consider whether the closing of 47 public schools in Chicago violated the right to education.
Article 13 of ICESCR recognizes “the right of everyone to education” and states that, “primary education shall be compulsory and available to all." The Chicago school closings disparately impacted African-American minorities and compromised their access to primary education. The CPS Administration's school reform efforts have thus failed to respect the right to be free from discrimination, which is a fundamental component of the right to education. Article 13 also states that education "shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms . . . [and] promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups." The discriminatory impact of the school closings also contradicts a central goal of education: promoting tolerance.
Segregation in CPS schools has increased even though the city has become less segregated as a whole. The dissimilarity index measures the percentage of black students who must change schools so that each school has the same proportion of black students as the school district overall. This index can be applied to Chicago residents as well, comparing the percentage of residents at each zip code that would have to move so that each zipcode has the same proportion of black students as the city overall. While the index fell from 90% to 80% for the city overall from 1970 to 2010, the index increased from 75% to 79% for schools. This increased segregation is due in part to discriminatory policies, such as the school closings. University of Illinois Professor Pauline Lipman’s research shows that more than 90% of the students affected by Chicago school closings since 2001 are African American, even though African Americans constitute only 42% of the city’s public school population. Analysis by the Chicago Teacher’s Union showed that schools with a majority African-American student population and staff were 10 times more likely to be closed or turned around.
As a result of the school closings, students must cross gang boundaries to attend their new schools. Parents are justifiably concerned that their children will be victimized by gang violence on the way to and from school. The physical safety of these students is thus endangered in accessing education. The CPS Administration attempted to address these concerns with a 16.1 million dollar extension of the Safe Passage Program. The program stations adults in neighborhoods to watch students walking to and from school in order to alert the police if there are any problems. However, parents doubt that the program will do enough to combat gang violence. In 2012, 1054 youth were murdered in Chicago. Half of these deaths occurred in the census tracts of closed schools. University of Illinois Professor of Criminology John Hagedorn agrees with parents. He has stated, "There's no way someone walking with [students] will protect them from a bullet.” It is still inconclusive whether the Safe Passage program will be successful, but many African-American students will have to risk their lives if it’s not.
Education creates access to opportunity by empowering individuals to transcend difficult circumstances. The right to education is necessary in realizing all other human rights and in developing an informed and engaged society. Given the right to education's pivotal role in bettering individuals and society, the CPS Administration must work to realize the right to education for all students, including minority students and those affected by the school closings.