In May 2013, the Chicago Board of education approved a plan to close 49 of the city’s elementary schools and one of its high schools1 resulting in the largest mass school closure in United states history.2 Those against the school closings argued that the decision was discriminatory considering the racial and socioeconomic disparities of children directly affected. With Black children representing just 40% of the district’s students, 80% of the children impacted by the closings were Black students living in predominantly Black and impoverished neighbor- hoods in the south and West sides of the city.
Despite national criticism and protests from local community members, chicago Public schools (cPs) leadership defended their actions citing the city’s one billion dollar budget deficit and a “utilization crisis” as rationale for the decision.4 cPs assigned each impacted student to a “welcoming school,” defined by cPs as a school within a one mile distance of the closed school and with a higher rating than the student’s previous school. The district posited that consolidating schools in this manner would allow for students to safely study in a higher-performing educational environment in close proximity to their homes. in the end, the closings displaced approxi- mately 12,000 students and 1,100 staff.
Several children’s rights organizations and individuals ruled the closings not merely morally questionable but also a violation to the civil and human rights of the children impacted due to the disproportionate number of displaced Black youth, the increased risk for violence for students attending schools further away from their homes, the disregard for displaced students with disabilities, and the concern of diminished educational access in overcrowded classrooms.6 The Midwest coalition for human Rights, in conjunction with the Pozen center for human Rights at the University of chicago, Loyola’s center for the human Rights of children, and several other organizations and individuals called for the United Nations to investigate the closings as a human rights violation.
The letter of allegation sent to the UN argued that the school closings decision infringed on human rights laws related to: equality, quality, and non-discrimination in education; freedom from violence and the right to life; and the opportunity to participate in public affairs. The letter further criticized justifying school closings due to limited financial resources and the decision to close schools without allowing students, parents, staff, and community members an opportunity to share their perspectives. Despite local and international efforts to stop the school closings efforts, the closings proceeded.
The school closings decision and, equally impor- tant, the process of making the decision without community input was further troubling considering that chicago positions itself as a protector of chil- dren’s rights. Though the U.s. is the only country that has failed to ratify the United Nations convention on the Rights of the child (CRC), a widely recognized international document outlining the human rights of every child in the world, the city of chicago adopted the treaty in 2009. chicago even stated that the “convention would provide a single, comprehensive framework within which the diverse arms of the chicago city government can assess and address, in a consistent manner, the rights and protections of our children.”
Now, six years following the chicago Board of education’s decision, longitudinal evidence supports the premise that the school closings actively harmed displaced students, families, staff, and community members in a multitude of ways. Learning outcomes decreased, school communities were ruptured, and classroom dynamics shifted. These consequences facilitate a new argument in favor of utilizing a human rights perspective to encapsulate the severity of the school closings and to advocate against future school closings decisions. as such, this policy brief will advocate for viewing school closings as both a human rights and civil rights issue by synthesizing relevant research on school closings, dissecting applicable international human rights laws, and offering case studies supporting a children’s rights perspective for this important topic.
Hill, Lincoln, "Chicago's School Closings: From a Civil Rights Perspective to a Human Rights Perspective" (2019). Center for the Human Rights of Children. 23.
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