Ever since December 10, 1948 when it was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has stood as an international moral beacon of human dignity and freedom. The Universal Declaration was never meant to be the final word on human rights, nor was it intended to impose a single model of right conduct on all nations. The Universal Declaration was written to be a living document, reinterpreted and reinvented by each succeeding generation, a common standard that can be brought to life in different settings in a variety of legitimate ways.
Education today is in dire need of just such a common ethical standard. Not a legally binding prescription, but a moral compass by which we can guide our practice, develop our programs and policies, and evaluate our results. In our ongoing efforts to provide the education our children deserve and our world so desperately needs, we need a mutual commitment to values that will inspire us and unite us in this shared vision.
The following articles attempt to balance the two primary goals of public education – 1) maximum individual self-realization, and 2) effective enculturation into our social and political democracy. They are intended to be taken as a whole so as to avoid neglecting one of these purposes for the other.
Declaration of Education Rights
Whereas a healthy, sustainable democracy requires the thoughtful and effective participation of its citizenry…
Whereas optimum political, social, and economic participation requires certain fundamental capacities and conditions…
Whereas it is the responsibility of democratic society to intentionally foster the development of these capacities and conditions essential to its continued vitality and to that of its citizens…
Now, therefore, this Declaration of Education Rights is proclaimed as a common standard of achievement for the continuous growth and self-realization of all people in the context of democratic community.
Everyone has the right to an education that fosters the understandings and capacities necessary for effective participation in a social and political democracy.
Everyone has the right to an education that fosters the understandings and capacities necessary to lead responsible and satisfying lives.
Everyone has the right to an education directed to their full development as an individual and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Everyone has the right to participate meaningfully in his/her own education and the educational decisions that affect him/her. These decisions include those establishing the purposes, content, and assessment of learning activities.
Everyone has the right to an education that acknowledges and respects his/her cultural, religious, and/or ethnic heritage, as well as his/her unique learning style.
Everyone has the right to an education that acknowledges multiple ways of knowing and assists in the exploration and understanding of various world views.
Everyone has the right to an education that acknowledges our place within the natural world, respects the interconnectedness of all life, and promotes the building of a just and sustainable world.
P-12 education shall be free and equally accessible, as well as equitably and adequately funded. Public dollars shall be allocated solely for public school programs, held publicly accountable, and in service to the public.
All educational institutions shall unambiguously reflect the values of democracy in their policies, practices, curriculum, organizational structures, and outcomes.
Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education in which their children participate.
Education shall be freely available until the age of majority. No minor shall be denied access to a free and appropriate educational program for any reason. Furthermore, no person shall be compelled to participate in any educational program that does not protect the full range of these rights.
Given that education is an ongoing process that extends far beyond the bounds of formal schooling, everyone has the right to live in an educative community that purposely contributes to the continuous growth and well-being of all its members.
The time has come for us to take a stand on what we believe to be the purpose and proper nature of education in our democracy. This Declaration of Education Rights is an attempt to do just that – an articulation of values and principles intended to serve as a moral and functional compass for education in America.
Thomas Jefferson sparked a political revolution when he wrote that “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. But the moral and philosophical revolution that produced these truths had been steadily growing in our hearts and minds for generations. Jefferson merely affirmed them and recognized their revolutionary implications.
Like its inspiration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of Education Rights contains some ideas that are intuitive and others that are more daring, but all of them reflect a revolution in thinking that is already under way. The implications are profound and far reaching.
We can ensure the long term impact of these ideas with their official adoption by schools, school districts, and educational organizations, as well as by state and federal departments of education. The ultimate objective, however, is the living out of these principles in our day-to-day decision making, policy setting, and throughout the educational process.
Note on the development of the Declaration of Education Rights
These 12 articles were inspired from a variety of sources, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), and the Institute for Educational Inquiry’s Agenda for Education in a Democracy.
Articles were selected in order to balance the following competing requirements:
1) Establish the conditions necessary to promote and preserve basic human and civil rights.
2) Address the values and requirements of democracy. For our purposes, we are using a broad definition of democracy as a value system – a way of living and working together based on freedom, justice, equality, and mutual respect.
3) Ensure the conditions necessary for the continuous growth, self-development, and creative participation of the learner.
4) Differentiate between education — a community responsibility — and schooling — one component of this larger context.
The Declaration of Education Rights is the product of an ongoing conversation about the purpose and future of education in America led by Jim Strickland. Many individuals have read and commented on this document, and it continues to evolve as a result of their input. Special thanks go to Peter Bergson, Angela Engel, and the Agenda for Education in a Democracy Scholars for their interest and valuable contributions to this project.
Jim Strickland is a veteran educator and an Agenda for Education in a Democracy Scholar. He teaches at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, WA where he lives with his wife and three children.