An Education Bill of Rights: Is Arne Duncan Onto Something?

At the recent National Parent Teacher Association Convention and Expo in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described three educational rights that every American family should have:

  • Free, quality preschool
  • High, challenging standards and engaging teaching and leadership in a safe, supportive, well-resourced school
  • An affordable, quality college degree.

It's time to address the idea of educational rights. Quality education should not be available only to the fortunate few when every student deserves it. While the U.S. Constitution reserves the responsibility for education to the states, civil rights remains a national issue and equal and excellent education is a civil right.

In 2005, Robert P. Moses, a hero of the civil rights movement and founder of the Algebra Project, called together civil rights workers and educators from around the country to create a grassroots movement to demand that quality education become a constitutionally guaranteed right. In the last few decades, some the country’s most recognized educators such as Linda Darling-Hammond have argued for the right to learn by restructuring public education to achieve greater equitable outcomes.

In 2014, civil rights icon James Meredith outlined an educational bill of rights for public school students. The list spanned experienced teachers, equity of resources, involved parents, quality learning, effective teachers, personalized instruction, full curriculum and services, transparency, respect for children and teachers, safety, freedom and challenge, reform through rigor and accountability, and 21st century education.

The proposition that children have educational rights would seem self-evident. Yet, the world is awash with evidence that many children and young people are denied even the most fundamental rights, such as safety, nutrition, and basic education. In the United States, nearly one-quarter of all children live in poverty. Over half of all public school students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch.

Many, if not most, of the schools attended by these children are underperforming. Poor students are six times more likely to attend high-poverty public schools than other children.

These facts and many more that could be marshaled point in a single direction: The arc of justice needs to bend in the direction of a universal, free public school system where excellence is distributed not by zip code, skin color, or socio-economic status but as a right for all children.

Changing the grand narrative of American education from exclusion to inclusion is an imperative that draws its inspiration from Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Along with history, Secretary Duncan is looking at the big picture by trying to frame the next era of educational change in terms of basic rights in a reform environment devoted to incremental change and micro-reforms.

Without a scaffolding of ideas and a sense of education as a right (and responsibility), reforms will have a hard time gaining traction. Indeed, we reform over and over again largely for want of a clear idea of our educational or social destination./p>

An educational bill of rights is not utopian or wooly-headed; it is exceedingly practical and unsentimental. Social policy without a foundational understanding of human rights and a disposition to end confusion is destined to undercut itself because it is untethered from the larger issues swirling around it—whether it is the long term effects of poverty on children or the disparities in educational access based on race, ethnicity, or family income.

By embedding educational policy into a larger historical narrative and current social reality, we stand a much better chance of following educational policy’s North Star—an inclusive, high quality system of schools that educate all children as though they were our own.

Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is the director of The Equity Project at AIR and the author of Sacred Trust: A Children’s Education Bill of Rights (2011).