by Brian Citro, Acting Director, International Human Rights Clinic, University of Chicago Law School and Bill Watson, PILI Fellow, International Human Rights Clinic, University of Chicago Law School
On August 13th and 14th in Geneva, Switzerland, an international committee of experts reviewed the United States’ compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Four committee members separately questioned a delegation of U.S. officials about the racially disparate impact of last year’s Chicago public school closings—the largest wave of school closings in U.S. history. The closings were one of the most frequently cited specific instances of racial discrimination in the United States addressed during the review process.
CERD is one of only a few international human rights treaties the United States has ratified. Unlike U.S. constitutional law—which generally prohibits only intentional discrimination based on race—CERD prohibits any government action that has a disparate impact on a racial minority. Under CERD, the United States must therefore ensure equal enjoyment in practice of several political, economic, social, and cultural rights listed in the treaty, including “the right to education and training.” The treaty is binding on all levels of government—whether federal, state, or local—and requires the federal government to “review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination.”
In advance of last week’s review, the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago, the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, and Blocks Together (BT) jointly submitted a “shadow” report to the Committee. The report provided the Committee with sobering statistics on the racially disparate impact of the Chicago school closings. While African American students represent only 40 percent of Chicago students, 80 percent of the students impacted by the closings were African American. Moreover, roughly 90 percent of the closed schools had a majority African American student population, and 71 percent had a majority African American teaching staff.
Although the City claimed that all students displaced by the closings would receive a better education, its promise failed to materialize. Instead, 34 percent of students affected by the closings were moved to a lower performing school and more than 50 percent were forced to attend a school on probation for poor performance. Students remained surrounded by violence as they walked to school, and there were reports of altercations and tension in the receiving schools between new and old students. Moreover, in the build up to the school closings, the City largely failed to respect African American parents’ right to participate in public affairs, protected under CERD. Recommendations from parents and experts during public hearings prior to the closings were largely ignored: the City closed eleven of the thirteen schools that hearing officers recommended stay open.
Unfortunately, these problems exemplify issues of de facto segregation and racial disparities in achievement in public education across the United States; the Chicago school closings are merely a case study in government action exacerbating preexisting segregation and achievement disparities. The fact is that, as of 2010, 74 percent of African American students in the United States attended majority-minority schools. Many of these schools are underfunded and under-resourced, with a high proportion of uncertified or out-of-field teachers. High school graduation rates for racial minorities remain lower than for White students and only 56 percent of African American high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education, as compared to 72 percent of White graduates.
The ultimate result of the CERD Committee’s review will be a series of “concluding observations” that give an official interpretation of the United States’ compliance with the treaty. Concerns raised by the Committee about public education in the United States—and specifically Chicago—will very likely find their way into these observations. It will then be up to civil society to work to ensure the United States Government and the City of Chicago fulfill their obligations under CERD to ensure all students enjoy a quality education free from racial discrimination.