April 26 — 3:34 pm, 2012

Public education as a human right

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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