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Human Rights and the Education System of the United States

By McKenna Christmas |

This article aims to give a general overview of the human rights concerns within our domestic education system, and to draw attention to an accumulating education debt that questions the legitimacy of the statement -- “equal opportunity for all.” As is evident from the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, the United States (U.S.) warrants its own human rights recommendations. One of these pressing concerns is education. In the Human Rights Watch Report of 2018, “Children in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems” was identified as a major concern for the United States. This issue is directly associated with the “school to prison pipeline,” defined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a disturbing trend “wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” Urban education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings explains the concept of America’s education debt, a term that refers to the effects of built up historical, economic, and other types of disparity within the education system. One element of education debt is moral-debt, a harmful tendency of considering the individual as completely responsible and at fault for their educational failings and resulting fate. However, we must learn to move past this uninformed assumption. In reality, the contributing factors of inadequate resource provision and distribution, tracking systems, and an overall lack of national commitment to education, facilitate not only an infamous achievement gap but contribute to the persisting human rights crisis of the school to prison pipeline.

School funding predominantly relies on state governments. This means that the allocation of funding towards schools varies widely across the United States. For example, in 2019 New York had an average per pupil expenditure of $23,894 compared to just $8,123 in Arizona. More specifically, funding varies for different counties within each state. This results in disparities not only across state lines but across county lines as well. School funding is determined by property taxes. As a result, schools that serve more affluent communities are better funded and thus better resourced. A startling example provided by the National Public Radio Education is that Chicago’s Ridge School District spends $9,794 on each student, whereas the nearby Rondout Illinois School District (which draws from the wealthy suburbs) has a per pupil expenditure of $28,639. According to the Learning Policy Institution, scarcity of funds is tied to subpar or even unqualified teachers and to an absence of enrichment resources within schools. This correlation puts minority students at a disadvantage. Schools with the most students of color receive approximately $1,800 less per student in state and local funding than schools serving the fewest students of color.

Educational inequity is tied not only to problematic resource distribution within school systems but also to a lack of support systems and enrichment programs outside of school. Countless studies demonstrate that a significant portion of students’ learning occurs within the home. This poses a common dilemma in households of low socioeconomic status. Their children are less likely to have the typical adult-child interactions that lay the foundation for the development of crucial academic skills. Additionally, factors such as the number of books owned and the literacy atmosphere of the home affect a child’s initial reading abilities. Statistics suggest that children from low-income families enter high school with average literacy skills five years behind those of high-income students. Many lower income families do not have the luxury to stay at home with their child. Rather, it is the more privileged children who are afforded this opportunity. The impacts of this early advantage are observed in school tracking programs. Labels such as “Gifted and Talented” or access to Advanced Placement (AP) and other types of college preparation programs are often restricted to the highest performing students who typically are those that have had the opportunity of at-home supplementary learning, as well as parents who actively advocated for their placement on more distinguished academic tracks. As a result, the school tracking structure contributes to the facilitation of social stratification.

Of additional concern is the racial disparity in these programs, with the great majority of students being white and characteristics such as bilingualism viewed as deterring factors in the selection process. The irony in this observed selection trend, is that bilingual capability is indicative of above average capabilities. The link between the tracking system and the school to prison pipeline is conspicuous given statistics such as, a student that is not reading at his or her grade level by the end of the third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school on time, graduation is six times less likely for low-income students below reading level. Additionally, a 2009 study by researchers at Northeastern University found that high school dropouts were 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates.

The structure of academic tracks is also highly problematic. Upper level tracks often have fail-out policies, whereas lower tracks usually offer no opportunity to move up to the higher academic track. This can cause issues with motivation as struggling students run the risk of failing out of higher level tracks and students may have little incentive to work harder in the lower level tracks. Ladson-Billings’ education debt model includes an element of socio-political debt, which details the impact of the historic build up of the parents of minorities not having access to the legislative or in school means of advocating for their child's interests. School is often geared towards those who have the time to stay. The parent advocacy structure is not catered towards families who may have parents working multiple jobs or who are English language learners themselves. This facilitates “opportunity hoarding,” a term coined by education scholars to describe how individuals who have advantages work hard in their channels of influence (to which they have access in the school system) to retain the advantages. Often cited as an example is the disturbing opinion held by some parents concerning school integration: “Diversity is good up to a point. As long as my child gets into all of the desired programs.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that resource provision and counseling are crucial in influencing a child's success, school systems still operate on zero-tolerance discipline policies that disproportionately punish those who are deemed part of the “general population” rather than upper-level academic tracks. Due to the continuation of policies such as tracking that enable in-school segregation, the students who are punished are usually minorities. For example, despite only making up 16% of public school enrollment, African-American students are suspended and expelled three times more than their white counterparts, who make up 51% of public school enrollment. This is of particular concern given that “students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.”

These egregious inequities in the school system that contribute to human rights concerns, including high rates of juvenile detention, prevail despite the United States’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. In Article 26, the UDHR clearly outlines that equitable educational opportunities are crucial. Furthermore the United States ratified and is therefore legally bound to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Even though it is one of the world’s oldest democracies, the United States has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) or the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The United States is one of only three countries that have not ratified the CRC which is a human rights treaty specifically geared toward the well-being of children with significant emphasis on equal access to education. The other two countries that have not accepted the CRC are Somalia and Sudan. Additionally, under the Trump administration the United States has withdrawn itself from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations and a national education agenda supporting school choice is being emphasized. An educational policy stance which is viewed by many as detrimental to the better allocation of resources to federally funded school systems.

The inequities in the United States’ school system fundamentally undermine the notion that the U.S. is the land of opportunity for all. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow. Yet, with the unequal distribution of resources, these leaders will not even come close to representing the diversity of the United States’ population. Of greater concern is the bright potential lost everyday to the school to prison pipeline -- supported by the faulty history and structure of our education system.


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