Chicago-based human rights advocates have sent a letter to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights asking the international body to monitor Chicago’s school closings.
The “letter of allegation” sent Tuesday evening to Geneva, Switzerland, asks U.N. officials to investigate whether the closing of 49 Chicago elementary schools violates children’s human rights.
“The United Nations taking this issue up and giving it serious attention will really bring home to Chicago and the United States that there are violations occurring here of human rights, potentially, not just about a budget crisis,” said Sital Kalantry, the University of Chicago law professor who filed the letter on behalf of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.
“(It’s) not just about closing schools to save money, but you need to be concerned about the rights of children when you close schools,” said Kalantry.
The letter argues the closings violate the human right to equality and nondiscrimination by disproportionately affecting African American students. About 40 percent of the district’s students are black, but 80 percent of students impacted by this year’s historic number of school closings are black. The school district has said the closings are driven by population declines in African American neighborhoods.
The letter also argues closings violate children’s right to live free of violence by forcing them to cross gang lines to get to new schools. It says educational quality is threatened by larger class sizes and argues the city “effectively denied people the right to participate in deciding whether or not to close the schools” by ignoring the public’s objections expressed at scores of public hearings.
“If a governmental body can simply ignore the views of the people they claim to represent, the right to participate in governmental affairs is meaningless,” the letter states.
Chicago human rights activists have taken issues to the United Nations before, including the case of former police commander Jon Burge, for torture that took place in Chicago police custody.
The United Nations does not have power to issue orders in the United States, but could investigate and issue findings. Past reports have nudged public officials to act or to re-evaluate their initial stance, Kalantry said.
“We believe that reaching out to the U.N. will draw international attention to this issue and hopefully encourage the United States government to take action,” she said.
Chicago Public Schools had no immediate response to the letter.
Chicago's City Council passed a resolution in 2009 adopting the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and ordering all city agencies to advance policies consistent with it. In addition, in the 1960s the United States ratified the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; Kalantry says the nation is obliged to comply with those covenants.
Kalantry says she believes the United Nations may have received correspondence about school closings from parents or activists in other U.S. cities, but no other “letter of allegation” has been made public, and the U.N. has not issued any public findings. New Orleans, New York City, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Philadelphia have all closed dozens of schools in recent years. The U.S. Department of Education under former Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan, has promoted school closings as a way to move students to better performing schools.
In Chicago, federal and circuit court cases challenging the school closings are pending.
See the "Letter of Allegation" below under "Files to Download."
Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that the U.N. does not have "jurisdiction" over the United States. The new text clarifies that the United Nations does not have power to issue orders in the United States.