The ongoing push for charter schools across the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district may infringe upon the fundamental human right to equal opportunity for education, according to a group of panelists who discussed privatization and education at the University of Chicago Wednesday night.
“Leaving people out of education is unacceptable ... Not having access to good public schools is a human rights issue,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), who sat on the panel with David Moberg, senior editor of In These Times and Susan Gzesh, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Human Rights Program.
The discussion, attended by approximately 80 people, comes on the heels of a Chicago Board of Education decision to close a staggering amount of public schools across the district. Forty-nine elementary schools and one high school are slated to close, marking the nation’s largest single wave of school closures in history. Miriam Canter Middle School is the only institution on the list that will not close it's doors in June; the school's closure will be phased out over two years.
Of the district’s 681 schools, approximately 14 percent, or nearly 100, are charter schools, which are publically funded but privately controlled. As of May 2012, there were more than 10,000 individuals on the waiting list to enroll in CPS’ charter schools, according to the Chicago Tribune. That same month, the district applied for a $20 million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant to build 60 new privatized charters over five years.
Once the district closes 50 institutions, and if the plan to open 60 new charters over five years comes to fruition, the percentage of charter schools in the CPS district could jump to about 25 percent.
Sharkey said the “pernicious” push toward non-union charter schools in CPS signals the “erosion of Chicago’s public school system.”
He pointed to the district’s admitted disinvestment in struggling neighborhood schools as perpetuating a pattern of inequality that destabilizes Chicago’s impoverished communities.
Starving and closing disadvantaged neighborhood schools, and then opening a charter school in their stead, infringes on the fundamental human right to equal opportunity for education, according to Sharkey. Charter schools generally admit students based on a lottery system.
“The (Chicago Public Schools) district in a way is admitting that it’s giving up on the concept of a universal, compulsory public education for everybody,” he said. “It's not clear that closing schools, at the same time as opening charter schools, is going to have the effect of preserving public education. It'll have the opposite effect of that."
Majority of the 50 schools set to be shuttered are in some of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods, including Austin and West Pullman.
According to the Woodstock Institute, foreclosure filings in the Far South Side neighborhood of West Pullman increased 59 percent from 2011 to 2012. The West Side’s Austin saw an increase of 13 percent in that same time period. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago as a whole saw an increase in foreclosure filings of just 1 percent.
Critics of the school closure plan have said vacant school buildings will deplete property values in neighborhoods already hit hard by 2008’s foreclosures crisis.
Citing a $1 billion budget deficit and “utilization crisis” of more than 100,000 empty seats across the district, CPS targeted underutilized and low-performing schools for this round of school closures. Officials estimated the actions would save the district approximately $400 million.
“It’s not ok that we have segregated school conditions in Chicago. It’s not ok that we have 160 schools without libraries or librarians. That’s not the way that people who are wealthy experience education,” Sharkey said.
Here’s more from Sharkey as he discusses education as a human right:
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948, “everyone has the right to education.”
“Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages,” Article 26 of the UDHR reads. “Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”
The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a UN treaty on civil and political rights, defines education in Article 13 as "... directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
During Wednesday’s forum, Gzesh, of the Human Rights Program, addressed Americans’ ideas of “rights to education” and what can be provided through the government.
She said the government guarantees access to all factors necessary for fundamental human dignity, including education.
“Family wealth should not determine access to quality education, and that is certainly a reality that many people are living in the United States today,” she said.
Gzesh made mention of a universal rights mandate that says everyone, regardless of income, is entitled to make certain demands of the government.
“Human rights provides a framework that says it’s the obligation of states to provide what people need for a dignified life, including the right to a decent education,” she said.
Moberg, of In These Times, spoke of the “business knows best” rhetoric of privatization. He said although it “does not inherently violate human rights, privatization has had a tendency, especially in this country, to increase inequality.”
“Privatization has diminished accountability, transparency and equality in communities, and many of those conditions show in Chicago,” Moberg said.