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Public education as a human right

By Nijmie Dzurinko on Apr 26, 2012 02:34 PM

Please help us welcome our newest blogger, Nijmie Dzurinko, former executive director of Philadelphia Student Union.

In the blurry world of education reform, parents, students, educators, and communities need a guiding light to keep us on track. What could public education look like in our city and state if education was fundamentally a human right guaranteed in our society? How can we proceed in our efforts to improve public education using a human rights lens as a way of discerning the competing efforts, frames and messages that inundate us?

“This all sounds too broad. I’m concerned about my school, my family, my community, and I can’t get into the politics.”

If that was your internal voice just now, you may have lost sight of the fact that the most powerful architects of public school reform are taking it upon themselves to tackle big questions like the future of education in our society, how it will be delivered and to whom, who will benefit, and how the role of education will be understood by all of us. 

And these architects have been influential in envisioning and creating policy that affects us down to the neighborhood, school, and individual levels. We found that out this week, and it extends to Race to the Top, high-stakes testing, school closures, school funding cuts, school vouchers, and cyber charters, among other things. As parents, students, educators, and community members, we leave ourselves open to attack and disunity when we do not have a common language through which we understand education reform. 

What would the human right to education entail? I would like to explore education from the point of view of these human rights principles:

  • Universality is the principle that human rights must be afforded to everyone, without exception. It is by virtue of being human alone that every person is entitled to human rights.

  • Equity is the principle that every person is entitled to the same ability to enjoy human rights. Resources and services must be distributed and accessed according to people’s needs, not according to payment, privilege, or any other factor. Disparities and discrimination must be eliminated, as must any barriers resulting from policies or practices.

  • Accountability is the principle that mechanisms must exist to enable enforcement of the human rights. It is not enough merely to recognize human rights. There must be means of holding the government accountable for failing to meet human rights standards.

  • Transparency is the principle that government must be open with regard to information and decision-making processes. When a public institution is needed to protect human rights, people must be able to know how that institution is managed and run.

  • Participation is the principle that government must engage people and support their participation in decisions about how their human rights are ensured.

When applied to education, this could mean:

  1. Every person is entitled to free, high-quality public education.
  2. Free, high-quality public education cannot be denied on the basis of income, race, gender, sexuality, location, immigration status, language, disability, parental involvement, or social and emotional issues (for example). 
  3. Education must be fully and equitably funded.
  4. Decisions about education must be transparent and accountable and must not violate the essential premise of the human right to education.
  5. People in and around the educational system – students, parents, teachers, educators, community members – must have avenues to participate in decision-making at the school-based and systemic levels.

Why would a human rights lens be useful? 

In Pennsylvania, a study in 2008 found that 474 out of 501 school districts were under-funded. The human rights principle of universality helps us to see that it is not merely one group of students in one place who is impacted, and it supports us to look for the broadest base so that we can push back against funding cuts. This is especially important considering that the bread and butter of the top 1 percent is using racism to drive wedges between people who could pose a threat if they united.

Parents, students, educators, and community members have put themselves on the map recently by effectively shaping broad-strokes policies regarding school closures and turnarounds to fit their needs. The human rights principle of participation maintains that it is our right as stakeholders to be part of the process, and the principle of accountability helps us make sure that any decisions made must meet our educational human rights standards.

The term equity is thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? The human rights lens helps us see that equity is not simply a term to be used when politically convenient, but a principle that applies to every student, every family, and every community. The richness of the voucher debate would be enhanced if we looked at the policy through a human rights lens and not simply whether we agree with the idea.

Using a mix of analysis, research, and interviews, I plan to connect these larger frames to a concrete understanding of the struggles and progress in education reform playing out across the country in cities like ours and in smaller towns and communities.

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Comments (17)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2012 4:00 pm

I would rather read something written by Helen Gym.

Submitted by Anonymous on April 26, 2012 5:49 pm

Then go read her post and stop wasting everyones time.

Submitted by Roger S. (not verified) on April 26, 2012 5:35 pm

Brilliant, can't wait for future post. Public eduction is something that I am not aware of, these posts will shine light on the subject for me and others.

Submitted by Kelly Anne (not verified) on April 26, 2012 6:10 pm

Poignant. Thank you.

Submitted by Monica (not verified) on April 26, 2012 8:50 pm

Well put! And why isn't is a basic human right? We can do nothing in life without reading and math, why aren't we as a community demanding something different for the children of our city? Why are we allowing these bureaucrats to dictate to us how our children are educated? We as citizens need to ask these questions because we are going to pay for these children now to be educated correctly, or later in some negative way! Prisons are built based on THIRD grade scores, what hope do our children have if we are not willing to "STAND OUR GROUND", we should not be moved or persuaded to accept less than the best at every school. Stand and be heard at these network meetings. Thank you for continuing to think about our children, looking forward to future post.

Submitted by Teach! (not verified) on April 26, 2012 9:25 pm

As always, Nijmie rocks it. If all of us, decided to focus on those few principles the Great Schools Compact, Race to the Top, and School District would have their hands tied.

Submitted by Dan Jones (not verified) on April 27, 2012 12:12 am

Thank you for posting this Nijmie- I'm glad to see a human rights frame being applied to education. I think there's a lot of crucial work to be done in thinking about what the realization of a human right to eduction really means and requires, and that if we take these principles as our starting point and step outside of the crisis-frame being pushed on us from all sides, we're much more likely to find ourselves building a school system which meets the needs of all of our students, and much less likely to find ourselves destroying and dissolving that system itself.

Submitted by Marcel the Anonymous (not verified) on April 27, 2012 8:31 am

Enjoyed reading the article. Didn't understand how the principles identified were "human rights principles". No interest in being confrontational or critical, just didn't get that transition. I will quote in part below for clarity.

"What would the human right to education entail? I would like to explore education from the point of view of these human rights principles:

Submitted by Nijmie (not verified) on April 27, 2012 8:11 am

Marcel, here a couple resources for human rights principles. I was drawing from a version used by the Vermont Workers Center in their Universal Healthcare Campaign (which they won!!) I'm just starting to engage with this framework myself and so far I see the principles as a guiding framework for how we explicitly define what human rights mean and how they should be applied. Let me know what you think.

Submitted by Kira (not verified) on April 27, 2012 10:03 am

Well written and thought out - Im looking forward to reading future posts from this blogger. This blogger applies the right framework to an issue that is often difficult to think about and envision solutions for -- education. The human rights framework helps to answer many of the questions around how to improve the education system. Simply put - all human beings should receive quality education -- by any means.

Please continue this conversation - hopefully more people will catch on and start applying this framework. Thank you!

Submitted by Helen Gym on April 27, 2012 12:32 pm

Welcome Nijmie! For those interested, NESRI is a great organization that not only is thinking through the application of human rights but is also making them concrete through local campaigns. Here's their web page:

They have helped folks like me with new language and ways of thinking and talking about education that can help people reframe the issues at stake.

Great first post!

Submitted by Nijmie (not verified) on April 27, 2012 12:58 pm

Thanks for this Helen! NESRI is an organization that I very much respect and I know that their Dignity in Schools Campaign ( has a relationship locally with the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools (

Submitted by Shulamith Koenig (not verified) on April 27, 2012 2:34 pm

Delighted to read it…--Mostly when you state that “..something is a human right is to say that everyone deserves to get it, regardless of who they are….” You have initiated a very important discussion , as a matter of fact a learning process, about human rights as a way of life…-- a process which is an imperative for which we have no other option in creating a new journey for humanity.. --Recognizing the humanity of the other free from fear and want. .
My name is Shulamith Koenig , a 5h American recipient of the UN Human Rights award (The other four are: Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King , Jimmy Carter and James Grant –UNICEF. With all humility. Internationally, Nelson Mandela has received it too ) – I share this with you not to be proud but to ask for the possibility to be closely in touch with you and identify ways where we can contribute to what you have started so triumphantly .
Allow me to say that we need to speak about --and know -- human rights not as a “lens” or ‘approach” or just RIGHTS -- but always as human rights!! –never short change it …-- as a holistic framework a vision and practical mission that we all must learn , know and own , plan and act accordingly to belong in dignity in community with others.. to enhance a participatory democracy..------To become mentors and monitors of human rights as a way of life.
Human Rights are inalienable, interconnected, interrelated and indivisible. .. AN IDNETITYT WE MUST ALL ASSUME
For all that read this please look at: , a keynote to 3400 high shool students from 24 countries and see the enthusiasm human rights can create when shared as a way of life .. --Towards social cohesion rather than just the LAW. ( Sorry, it is not a professional video taping but yet brings the message well.)
Please read below the porgam we are LOOKING TO FACILITATE : “Corps “ to start an ongoing process of learning and integrating human rights as relevant to people’s daily lives… –the human rights to education, health, housing, food and work at livable wages..--So that : To say that something is a human right is to say that everyone deserves to have it. .
A Call to Action for Faculty and Students from Around the World:
Each of us, at one time or another even if just for a moment, believes we can change the world; --but no one can do it alone. After twenty years traveling the globe, facilitating the learning about human rights as a way of life at the community level I know it is possible having been a witness to people becoming agents of change guided by the holistic human rights framework.
We are now looking to establish the People’s Corps for Human Rights Learning and we need you commitment. This will be the largest outreach movement in history with a goal of ensuring that every woman, man, youth and child knows and takes-to-heart the realization of human rights as a way of life. By knowing and owning human rights as a way of life people will participate as equals in the decisions that determine their lives and join in building a viable just community, strengthen family and extricating themselves from poverty and ignorance. Without that fundamental knowledge about human rights as the right to be human, enabling people to belong in dignity in community with others we cannot build a genuine democracy and we cannot challenge the status quo.
To join in achieving these goals we seek to engage university students from around the planet, to join us in dialogue and develop the strategies and agenda for the Corps.-- Like the PEACE CORPS,- we are agents of change, facilitating people each in their own country find ways to empower themselves, transform lives and nations. We will utilize of all forms of communication, social media and personal contact to multiply our efforts globally.
If you believe, as we at PDHRE do, with your entire being that we have no other option but human rights, then take the first step and contact us. If you know others, bring them along. Together we can embark on a movement that will make all the difference in the world.
If you are interested in taking action, we are here to serve and work with you.
PDHRE, People's Vermont for Human Rights Learning -

Shula Koenig ; Robert Kesten
– view our website at www.pdhre.prg
PDHRE, 526 West 111th Street, Suite 4E , NY, New York ,10025, USA

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 3, 2012 1:38 pm

Who is to pay for this education as a human right? Teachers have a human right to be paid, right? Will the money be taken forcefully from taxpayers regardless of ability to pay? Isn't it a free country?

Submitted by melaniecruz (not verified) on October 12, 2012 11:54 pm

Public education is of course the right of every citizen and that we should protect it.. I really do love helping kids too go to school.

Submitted by Gloria (not verified) on June 5, 2014 3:01 am
Those values really sound nice, but unfortunately nothing is perfect and everyone here knows how imperfect things are in education... gloria
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 5, 2014 5:31 am

 This will be the largest outreach movement in history with a goal of ensuring that every woman, man, youth and child knows and takes-to-heart the realization of human rights as a way of life. By knowing and owning human rights as a way of life people will participate as equals in the decisions that determine their lives and join in building a viable just community.  flcomp sys

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