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Right to Education Conference 2007
Event Summary

The Advocates for Human Rights held its fifth annual Human Rights Law and Policy conference on Friday, June 15 2007 at Dorsey and Whitney, LLP in Minneapolis.  This year’s conference focused on the right to education in the U.S. and was titled Children Left Behind: A Child’s Right to Education in the United States

The Director of The Advocates' Education Program Colleen Beebe introduced the conference.  Elizabeth Sullivan, Education Program Director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), then began by speaking on the topic of “Education as a Human Right.”  She provided an overview of human rights, noting that the right to education falls under the category of economic and social rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements.  These rights are attributed a status equal to that of civil and political rights in the international community, although their significance has been largely marginalized in the U.S., according to Sullivan.  Ms. Sullivan then emphasized that framing the shortcomings of our educational system as a human rights issue can positively impact how education is viewed in the U.S. by shifting our focus from the performance of schools and districts to the development of each child.  She also stressed that adopting human rights standards in education also represents an effective means of increasing government accountability provided communities organize themselves “to demand that their rights are protected.”  As an example, Ms. Sullivan pointed to CADRE, a Los Angeles-based group that has organized human rights tribunals to help ensure minority students receive a quality education.

University of Minnesota Professor of Political Science Scott Abernathy followed Ms. Sullivan with a discussion of the No Child Left Behind Act, detailing its shortcoming both in Minnesota and nationally. The intricacies of No Child Left Behind, including the ends it aims to achieve and the modes of evaluation it employs to measure satisfactory progress, were first explained.  Mr. Abernathy then argued that No Child Left Behind has, in effect, negative consequences despite its aim of providing educational equality.  One such consequence is the less creative learning environment now being observed in many of our nation’s schools; for example, the time being devoted to social studies has been cut in half because the subject is not used as a measure of school progress under No Child Left Behind.  The reliance on standardized testing is a central flaw of No Child Left Behind according to Mr. Abernathy.  It has led to a failure to recognize the external factors that might contribute to shortcomings, meaning that larger and more diverse schools are being punished at higher rates.  Mr. Abernathy concluded by offering recommendations for improving No Child Left Behind.  He advocated supplementing the current modes of evaluation with surveys capable of better illuminating the unique conditions in each of our nation’s schools in addition to devising a system of rewards so that No Child Left Behind is not wholly punitive.    

After the keynote speeches the conference continued with a series of panel discussions.  The first panel was titled Addressing the Barriers to Accessing Education in the U.S. and was moderated by Ann Theisen of The Advocates for Human Rights.  Baris Gumus-Dawes, research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty, presented on racial and economic segregation in our schools.  She used the Twin Cities’ public schools to demonstrate that racial and economic segregation is increasing nationally.  This trend has had damaging effects on student achievement and, consequently, Ms. Gumus-Dawes argued that school integration represents the best available means of improving access to a quality education.  Amy J. Goetz of the School Law Center shifted the focus to students with disabilities.  Much of her talk focused on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which she revealed has been relatively effective since its recent reauthorization.  Nonetheless, Goetz identified several ways of improving IDEA such as increasing parent involvement and encouraging students with disabilities to participate in more extracurricular activities.  Executive Director of The Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and state legislator Rep. Carlos Mariani next emphasized the dangers of failing to sufficiently prepare minority groups for higher education.  While the enrollment rate of white students in Minnesota’s K-12 schools is declining the enrollment rates of minority students continue to increase, meaning we are not adequately educating the populations that will continue to make up an increasingly significant portion of the workforce.  Todd Otis, Executive Director of Ready4K, completed the panel discussion by urging the audience to think in new ways about early childhood development and to conceive of children as assets with valuable potential rather than as debts.  Because education and prosperity are inextricably related the more money we invest in early childhood education the more successful our youth will be as adults, according to Mr. Otis.  In an inspiring conclusion to the session, he challenged each in attendance to reverse America’s current tide of individualism and renew a commitment to the common good. 

Natela Jordan, the Education Coordinator with the Human Rights Resource Center, began the second panel discussion on addressing the barriers to equitable access to education. Jordan is the coordinator of the ‘This is My Home’ project that began in 2005. The main goals of the project are to create an environment where people feel safe and secure, to work with community members on human rights issues, and to make sure these educational practices can be accessed by a multitude of districts and educators. Anne Carroll, a St. Paul School Board Member, followed with a discussion of St. Paul’s contributions to addressing various educational barriers. Their mission of providing premier education for all was discussed, along with the site-based decision making model St. Paul schools have used in order to better serve their students. Joe Nathan, the Director of the Center for School Change, next quizzed the audience with ten questions that covered various educational topics. The answers offered information regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the economic reward of every educated child, and national work that is being done in regards to educational rights. Executive Director of Crossing Barriers Ladan Yusuf continued the panel discussion by addressing the challenges that exist when confronting educational barriers. Yusuf stated that many students' voices are not being heard and encouraged the audience to take action to remedy the human rights violations currently taking place in our communities' schools. Elizabeth Sullivan closed the panel, speaking on national efforts currently being undertaken to address educational barriers, specifically those relating to discipline and safety in school.  Sullivan stated that children should be able to play an active role in defending their rights and voicing their opinion.  

Kathleen O'Donnell opened the final session with the answers to the Education as a Human Right Quiz.  Then, participants were divided into discussion groups by their status as educators or advocates and were encouraged to discuss the following questions.

  1. Were there any key barriers or solutions to the right to education in the United States that were not discussed or were overlooked into today’s discussion?
  2. Did you learn anything useful from this conference that you intend to use?
  3. Brainstorm a list of things that you can do as an educator or an advocate to work towards fulfilling the right to education for all in the United States?
  4. Discuss how we can best use human rights language and a human rights framework in advocacy and education to create a collective Minnesota response to the achieving the Right to Education.

O’Donnell facilitated the discussion allowing the groups to briefly report ideas that arose when discussing the last two questions.  A compilation of the groups' discussion points is available in PDF format.