American Public Education Through the Human Rights Lens

There is broad agreement that the current approaches employed to achieve the goal of quality education and eliminate discrimination are inadequate. Need-based and service-delivery approaches fail to acknowledge or address the complex barriers that impede children's access to school, attendance, completion, and attainment and, in so doing, inhibit progress in closing the gap among underserved communities.

By contrast, a human rights framework for confronting systemic inequities in the American public education system would emphasize outcomes rather than inputs or access. Under this framework, neutral policies crafted as an attempt to eliminate discrimination and ensure all students have an equal opportunity would be considered ineffectual given the persistence of wide disparities in educational outcomes.

What would it mean to apply a human rights framework to education? In the context of school discipline, for example, while our current practice to address discipline issues is often to remove the student from the class, under a human rights approach, one would conclude that both out-of-school and in-school suspensions prohibit students from participating in the daily activities inherent to quality schooling and arguably violate their right to education. A human rights approach would involve intervening in an effective and holistic way, determining the child's needs, and attempting to meet them.

Utilizing disparate impact theory is one way to begin to implement the human rights framework through domestic laws. As a result of bringing disparate impact cases against states, districts, and schools, there would need to be new solutions to improve education for all that may exist beyond the current educational paradigm. As disparate impact cases highlight discrimination in our public education system, adopting the human rights framework will help to develop new, holistic solutions. It is premature to speculate on exactly what proposals could grow out of the implementation of a human rights framework; however, it is certain that they will be more comprehensive and cross-cutting rather than isolated; reflective of all student needs; cognizant of the results of the policy; and cognizant of all students' right to education.

The United States is a world leader in advancing human rights and promoting basic civil and political rights and equality around the globe. Yet, application of the international human rights framework has generally not occurred domestically; rather, the pursuit of civil rights and social justice in the United States has rested primarily on rights guaranteed by the Constitution and our domestic laws. Unquestionably, there have been substantial improvements in domestic law prohibiting discrimination with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and many others. Yet we still fall short in successfully eliminating discrimination at its root, a failure that may be attributed in part to our focus on proving intent.

Through the human rights framework, we have an opportunity to define a clear mandate for our government, the private sector, and our nation to dramatically improve public education in America.



Dianne Piché is senior counsel and director of education programs, June Zeitlin is senior counsel and director of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women program, Sakira Cook is policy research associate, and Max Marchitello is William L. Taylor Policy Fellow at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.