Right to Education Project

The right to education is enshrined in a number of international instruments, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). At its core, the right to education requires equal access to good quality education for all children. Ensuring equal access to good quality education implicates the right to be free from discrimination enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Righs (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The right of children with disabilities to access good quality education that meets their special needs is also protected in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRDP).

Chicago Public School Closings

Ignoring widespread opposition by parents, students, teachers, and community members, the City of Chicago closed 49 public elementary schools in June 2013 . This was the largest wave of school closures in the history of the United States, encompassing 10% of all public schools in Chicago, the third largest city in the country. The schools were closed through an accelerated process: the closings were announced in March and became effective in June 2013.

Public schools in Chicago are the most racially segregated schools in the United States. Although many schools are considered “underutilized” in Chicago, the schools targeted for closure were predominately in African American communities. In fact, 87% of the schools marked for closure were majority African American. Nearly 30,000 students, over 80% of whom are African American, were displaced in a matter of months as a result of the closings.  Due to the prevalence of gangs in many of the affected communities, students forced to go to new schools face an increased risk of violence. Education quality will suffer for students who need it most because of increased class sizes and difficulties in safely accessing school buildings. 

The school closures had an especially negative impact on students with disabilities.  Twelve percent of the students displaced by the schools closings receive some type of special education service. Parents and a commissioned panel of retired judges expressed fears prior to the closings that these children’s needs were ignored during the accelerated closure process. Chicago’s Board of Education promised that special-needs teachers would be trained in the receiving schools to meet disabled students’ needs, but parents alleged that this training may prove inadequate.

Since the closings, 322 students have gone missing from the CPS system and 871 have left altogether; 88% of students who left were African American. The closings have resulted in increased class sizes in receiving schools, depriving African American students of their right to good quality and accessible education. Further, CPS has failed to keep its promise to make a variety of improvements to all receiving schools. Due to the prevalence of gangs in many of the affected communities, students forced to go to new schools face an increased risk of violence.

Letter of Allegation to United Nations Special Rapporteurs

The IHR Clinic, in partnership with the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, submitted a Letter of Allegation in September 2013 to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Mr. Kishore Singh, the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Ms. Rita Izsák, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Mr. Mutuma Ruteere, addressing the human rights implications of the school closings. The letter is sent to the United States government through its mission to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. The government is expected to respond to the allegations made in the letter and its response will be included in a quarterly communications report issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The letter argues that the closing of 49 public schools in Chicago implicates the human rights of children, their parents and guardians to non-discrimination and equality, to be free from violence, to education, and to participate in public policy decisions.  

First, in contravention of the right to equality and nondiscrimination enshrined in the ICCPR, ICERD, CRC, and CRPD, the school closings disproportionately and negatively impacted minority and disabled children. African American children make up 42% of the students in Chicago’s public schools, but 80% of the children impacted by the school closures are African American. Hastily closing 49 public schools in a matter of months also negatively impacted disabled children who were forced to move to new schools without any guarantee that their special needs would be met. 

Second, in violation of the right of children to be free from violence in the CRC and right to life in the ICCPR, the school closings placed children at greater risk of violence and death because they were forced to traverse new routes to school through gang-contolled areas. 

Third, the right to education, which includes quality of education, will be eroded with increased class sizes. Many transferred students, as well as students in receiving schools, face class sizes larger than in the prior school year due to the school closings. 

Fourth, the city of Chicago effectively denied people the right to participate in deciding whether or not to close the schools. Parents, community residents, and teachers resoundingly and consistently objected to the closures in many public hearings, street demonstrations, and direct pleas to members of the Board of Education. Nonetheless, the Board ignored these voices and went ahead with the closings as planned. In addition, democratic participation is constricted in public school matters in Chicago because, unlike most other school districts in the United States, members of the Chicago Board of Education are not democratically elected. Instead, the Mayor of Chicago independently appoints all board members.

Report to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: The City of Chicago's Mass Public School Closings and their Discriminatory Effect on African Americans

The IHR Clinic, in partnership with The Chicago Teachers UnionThe University of Chicago Human Rights ProgramThe Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, and Blocks Together submitted a Shadow Report to the CERD Committee in June 2014, addressing the discriminatory effects of Chicago’s closing of 49 public elementary schools in June 2013. The report argues that in closing the schools, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination’s (CERD’s) article 5(e)(v), the right to education; article 5(b), the right to security of person; article 5(c), the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs; and article 2(1)(a), which obliges the state to act to prevent discrimination. The report is available here.

2008 Committee Observations

In 2008, the CERD Committee issued four concerns it had in regard to racial discrimination in education. First, it recommended that the United States adjust its definition of racial discrimination to correspond with that of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Convention requires only discriminatory effect, while U.S. law requires discriminatory purpose. Second, it voiced its concern over the disproportionate amount of African Americans in low-income neighborhoods. Third, it expressed concern over de facto racial segregation in public schools. Lastly, it urged the U.S. to take all appropriate measures to close the achievement gap by improving the quality of education.

U.S. Government 2013 Periodic Report

In its 2013 Periodic Report, the U.S. government responded to the concerns of the CERD Committee. First, it stated that it had worked on approximately 200 school desegregation cases, and prevented many discriminatory suspensions and expulsions. Second, the government described its efforts to reduce de facto racial segregation in schools. Third, the government stated that it created a commission to address the achievement gap. The government report failed, however, to address the Chicago school closings. The report is available here.

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

In the Shadow Report, The IHR Clinic and its partners argue that the school closings violated Article 5(e) of the Convention: the right to education. General Comment 13 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also establishes the right to an acceptable and accessible education. In closing the schools, the City of Chicago disproportionately prevented African American students from receiving a good quality and accessible education, because of the increase in class sizes, waste of resources, disproportioned funding and at times unsafe environment.

Teachers reported tension among old and new students at receiving schools, which harmed the learning environment and endangered the students. Further, the primary motivation for the closings was to improve the educational environment, yet over half of the students displaced by the closings are now attending schools on probation. Government spending on children in these receiving schools is also inadequate compared to that spent on children in charter schools. CPS spent over $2000 per child during the start-up period of a charter school, while it spent only $230 per child during the transition period of the closings.

The closings also violate the Convention’s Article 5(b), the Right to Security of Person. General Comment 13 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child also establishes a child’s right to be free from violence, which includes the commute between home and school. Many of the school closings occurred in neighborhoods with high levels of violence and gang activity. Despite the Chicago Board of Education’s attempt to provide students with “Safe Passage” routes, violence persists and students remain at risk while walking to school.

The Chicago Board of Education’s conduct also violated Article 5(c) of the Convention, the Right to Take Part in the Conduct of Public Affairs. CBE held hearings for community members affected by the closings, yet they required Internet access and had only early morning sign-on times for a speaking position. Many African Americans thus found it difficult to participate in the hearings, which amounted to an “unreasonable restriction” on their participation. The recommendations of parents and independent officers hired by CBE, which were overwhelmingly to keep the schools opened, were ignored, and 11 of the 13 schools recommended to remain open were closed.

Lastly, the school closings violate Article 2(1)(a) of the Convention: Obligations of State Parties. In approving the Convention, the U.S. must take appropriate measures to ensure that the City of Chicago does not contravene CERD in regard to the rights of African Americans in the Chicago community.

Questions and Recommendations for the CERD Committee

The IHR Clinic hopes that the CERD Committee will pose these questions to the United States in its review of the country:

  • What will the United States do to address the de facto racial segregation in Chicago Public Schools?
  • What is being done to investigate the discriminatory impact of the school closings, especially on the quality of education African American children are receiving?
  • What will the United States do to ensure security for students impacted by the closings as they walk to school through areas of heightened violence and gang-activity?
  • What will be done to investigate and address the lack of meaningful public participation allowed by the City of Chicago in the decision to close 49 public schools?

The report also makes several recommendations to the Committee:

  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States conduct a federal investigation into the Chicago school closings to, among other things, ascertain an appropriate remedy;
  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States implement legislative, executive, or judicial remedies to address the racial discrimination in Chicago Public Schools;
  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States implement security measures to ensure adequate protection for students impacted by the closures who must walk through gang-controlled areas on the way to new schools;
  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States take appropriate measures to ensure meaningful public participation of parents and community members in future decisions to close public schools.

Report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee

The IHR Clinic, also in partnership with the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, submitted a "shadow" report on the Chicago public school closings to the UN Human Rights Committee prior to the Committee's Fourth Periodic Review of the United States in October 2013. The report is available here.

The report takes up the same issues addressed in the letter of allegation and it proposes several questions for the United States government related to the school closings. The IHR Clinic hopes the Human Rights Committee will pose these questions to the United States government during its review of the country in October 2013. These questions include:

  • What is being done to investigate and address the discriminatory effect of the closures of public schools in Chicago, Illinois and other municipalities on minority and disabled children’s access to quality education?
  • What will the United States do to ensure protection of the right to life and protection from the State for children in Chicago, Illinois and other municipalities who face heightened exposure to criminal violence and death as a result of being forced to walk through gang-controlled areas to attend school?
  • What is being done to investigate and address the lack of meaningful public participation in decisions to close public schools in Chicago, Illinois and other municipalities, including ensuring local boards of education are democratically elected and that widespread public opposition to school closings is not ignored? 

The report also makes several recommendations to the Human Rights Committee:

  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States take steps to ensure equal access to quality education for minority African American and disabled children in Chicago and other municipalities where public schools are closed, including guarantees that the special needs of disabled students will be met in their new schools and that children are not forced to receive a lower quality education as a result of school closings.
  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States consider all possible options to address the discriminatory effect school closings in Chicago and other municipalities have had on minority African American and disabled students, such as federal investigation and contingency federal funding.
  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States implement measures to ensure adequate protection for students affected by the closure of public schools in Chicago and other municipalities who must walk through gang-controlled areas on the way to new schools, such as federal and local law enforcement partnerships directed towards stopping gang activity in affected areas.
  • We urge the Committee to recommend that the United States establish an independent federal body to investigate and make recommendations concerning the public school closures and the lack of meaningful public participation in the decisions to close public schools in Chicago and other municipalities, including highlighting the importance of a democratically elected board of education.

Using Indicators to Promote the Justiciability of the Right to Education

Professor Sital Kalantry participated as a speaker in an event held during the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Switzerland in June 2013. The event, titled "Using Indicators to Promote the Justiciability of the Right to Education," was held as a follow-up to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Mr. Kishore Singh's, report on the justiciability of the right to education. The report is available here. Mr. Singh participated in the event, which was sponsored by the University of Chicago Law School, the Permanent Mission of Mexico, the Permanent Mission of Portugal, and the NGO Platform on the Right to Education. Other participants included Ms. Janet Love, National Director of the Legal Resources Centre, South Africa, M. Nicholas Fasel, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Ana Brito, Permanent Mission of Portugal, Dr. Alfred Fernandez, Director General, OIDEL, M. Ulises Canchola, Permanent Mission of Mexico, and Ms. Claire de Lavernette, Coodinator, NGO Platform on the Right to Education.

The event was held in light of the UN's recent promotion the use of indicators in the field of human rights and the recent entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Human rights indicators are important for measuring progress made towards realization of the right to education. They are also critical to gauging the success of the post-2015 education agenda. The event panelists discussed whether and how indicators can be used to successfully litigate cases claiming violations of the right to education and other social, economic and cultural rights.