Education As a Human Right

As enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). and further expanded in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR), human rights are those that are essential to live as human beings-- basic standards without which one cannot enjoy equality and dignity. These treaties serve as the blueprint for all rights and the foundation for the development of the human rights framework, universal norms, and standards.

The right to education appears specifically in several human rights instruments, including the UDHR (Article 26), the ESCR (Articles 13 and 14), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (Articles 23(3), 28, 29, and 33), the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) (Articles 2(2), 5(e)(iv), and 33), and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (Articles 10 and 14(2)). (While the United States has endorsed the UDHR, which is comprehensive and inclusive of the right to education, the only one of these treaties the United States has ratified is CERD, which includes a binding commitment on the nation to implement its provisions.)

The right to education, when it was first recognized internationally, focused on access and established an entitlement to free, compulsory primary education for all children; an obligation to develop secondary education, supported by measures to render it accessible to all children, as well as equitable access to higher education; and a responsibility to provide basic education for individuals who have not completed primary education. Unquestionably, progress in that regard has been made. However, achieving the goal of assuring every child a quality education that respects and promotes his or her dignity and optimum development has necessitated a broader focus.

A recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization entitled A Human Rights Based Approach to Education for All describes the rights-based approach to education for all as a holistic one, encompassing access to education, educational quality (based on human rights values and principles), and the environment in which the education is provided. This approach integrates the norms, standards, and principles of international human rights into the entire education process from development to programming, including plans, strategies, and policies. It specifically considers the effect that the policy will have rather than focusing on its intent. And in doing so, it enables us to reevaluate our current systems and assess those inputs that directly affect a child's ability to receive a high-quality education. As applied, it seeks to create greater awareness among governments and other relevant institutions of their obligations to fulfill, respect, and protect human rights and to support and empower individuals and communities to claim their rights.

The Committee on ESCR describes it best in its General Comment No. 13, which states that education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities.Stated another way, without the right to education, realization of all other rights becomes impracticable. This is the very foundation of Brown.

Although no affirmative constitutional right to education has been recognized in this country, it is important to note that the United States is accountable for moving toward the realization of the right to education in the context of its international treaty obligations. In particular, as a party to ICERD and the ICCPR, the United States is required to file a periodic report to each committee, detailing how it has successfully implemented each provision. Responding to those reports with respect to education, both ICERD and the ICCPR noted with great concern the persistence of de facto racial segregation in public schools; the persistent achievement gap between students belonging to racial, ethnic or national minorities, including English Language Learner (ELL) students, and white students; and the alleged racial disparities in suspension, expulsion, and arrest rates in schools [that] contribute to exacerbat[ing] the high drop-out rate and the referral to the justice system of students belonging to racial, ethnic or national minorities.

Further, the committee recommended that the United States take steps to adopt all appropriate measures to elaborate effective strategies aimed at promoting school desegregation and providing equal educational opportunity in integrated settings for all students and enact legislation to restore the possibility for school districts to voluntarily promote school integration in accordance with article 2, paragraph 2 of the convention.Also, the committee urged the United States to take special measures to reduce the achievement gap, improve the quality of education for all students, and encourage school districts to review zero-tolerance school discipline policies. It is no surprise that these recommendations by the committee are directly related to the pervasive problems within our education system as stated above.