US to investigate civil rights charges against CPS

Activists fighting to keep open two public high schools in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood found out on Aug 6 that the Office for Civil Rights within the US Department of Education plans to investigate those planned closings, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Jeanette Wilson, senior advisor to the Rev Jesse Jackson, said the decision to open an investigation was a good beginning. Speaking at Rainbow Push Coalition headquarters, she was quoted as saying, “The fact that they are going to look into it at all says that some of the practices that have been accepted as normal and appropriate are now being questioned.”

OCR will investigate Dyett High School and Mollison Elementary School, on behalf of which activists filed a civil rights complaint earlier this year. They allege Mollison is overcrowded and understaffed, and the nation’s third-largest school district denies kids at Dyett access to art and physical education, etc.

We opined over a year ago that students at Dyett, who are predominantly African-American, weren’t getting the same opportunities in terms of arts education as their peers at other neighborhood high schools within the Chicago Public Schools system, where the student population is not as African-American.

In the previous article, covering testimony at the US Department of Education by a former Dyett student, I used a thrown-together graphic to describe the spiral of events that lead to inevitable school closure. Maybe I’ll make my point this time with a simple list. What happens in schools like Dyett, under No Child Left Behind, is something like this:

  1. Test scores go down, and NCLB puts the school into a turnaround mode. As soon as test scores are low enough for long enough, the school will have to close under federal law
  2. As a result of the turnaround and before the problem is really, really bad, schools focus on math and reading, which are the tested subjects
  3. When schools focus the curriculum, classes that aren’t tested are dropped
  4. When certain classes in the fine arts or PE are dropped, kids don’t like going to school
  5. When kids don’t like going to school, they show up for class less often
  6. Attendance rates drop, because kids don’t like going to school anymore
  7. When kids are in class less, their performance on standardized tests declines
  8. Repeat this whole sequence, from the top, but with much lower test scores and a narrowed curriculum going in

“Because OCR has determined that it has jurisdiction and that the allegations were filed timely, it is opening them for investigation,” wrote Aleeza Strubel, supervisory attorney with OCR. “Please note that opening the allegations for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merit.”

Yeah, we got it, the allegations may not have merit.

This is especially true since the root cause of the narrowing of the curriculum at Dyett and the unequal application of funding to schools within the district is the federal law known as No Child Left Behind in the first place. Lawyers within OCR are probably not likely to find merit with any claim that would seem to suggest the federal law known as NCLB would need to be revisited.

As shown above, this whole process happened because of that federal law. I’m not optimistic that OCR will find CPS violated the law, since it seems to me they are following it to the strictest and most discriminatory letter.

We also note that a court in the District of Columbia ruled last month that schools in the district didn’t violate students’ and parents’ equal protection rights and civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some of the issues raised by the plaintiffs were policy questions, the court decided, which are political in nature and not subject to review or resolution by a court or regulatory agency. The court also found no evidence that the school closure policy was applied in a racially discriminatory manner.

Which is true, except that the racial neutrality of NCLB, where school districts narrow curricula and close schools under color of law, and where schools spiral downward until there’s no course of action left but to close them down, has had a disparate effect on communities that are predominantly poor and African-American. The public schools in these neighborhoods have been made increasingly unattractive to students who live in those neighborhoods, and soon the only choice left for them will be charter schools.

CPS should be ashamed of how it has deprived these kids of the educational opportunities afforded to other, white, students in the district. Whether or not it rises to the level of a civil rights violation, something is wrong at Dyett, and it started happening a long, long time ago.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.