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Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Education
May 31, 2013

Statement by the U.S. Delegation to the UN Human Rights Council
UN Human Rights Council – 23rd Session

May 31, 2013

The United States thanks the Special Rapporteur on Education for his report.

Education has been at the core of the United States’ belief in human rights since our founding.  Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of our Declaration of Independence, once wrote, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society, but the people themselves: and…to inform their discretion by education.”  Indeed, education has been the bedrock on which our nation has been built.  As each segment of our society has been able to tap into the promise of free and non-discriminatory schooling, we, as a nation, have grown economically, socially, and culturally.  It is this opportunity to gain knowledge that has allowed, and continues to allow, people to fulfill their potential.

We agree with the Special Rapporteur that judicial systems are important guarantors of equal access to education.  As the Special Rapporteur recognizes in his report by citing the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision ending racial segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education, our legal system has played a key role in ensuring that everyone in the United States is able to obtain an education regardless of race, religion, family income, or physical and mental abilities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets forth the right to education, and many states have taken on treaty obligations with respect to education.  However, we do not agree with all of the report’s legal conclusions or policy recommendations.  Likewise, we do not agree with phrasing in this report that implies the expansion of the content or coverage of existing rights.  For example, while quality education for every student is the highest of ideals and something that we strive for in our schools daily, we do not agree with phrasing in this report implying that existing rights includes quality education.  We also note that in the analysis of quality education and the justiciability of teacher quality, the report inaccurately describes a New York State court decision as interpreting its state constitution to include an obligation to provide a high quality education, as well as finding that teacher quality is justiciable.  While that decision held that the state’s constitutional requirement is to provide a “sound basic education” to every student, and noted that teacher quality is important, the court did not determine that teacher quality is justiciable.

Some of the recommendations made by the report are incompatible with our federal system of government and our judicial system, including recommendations regarding public interest litigation and legal aid in civil cases.  We support access to judicial mechanisms for individuals who have suffered certain types of harm.  However, in order to bring action against someone in a court, an individual must have “standing” –a connection to the claim and a showing of harm to that individual.  While many civil society groups stand ready to assist individuals who have had their rights infringed under U.S. law, under the U.S. legal system, such cases must be initiated by the affected individuals.

Despite these and other differences with the report, we appreciate the important work conducted by the Special Rapporteur and encourage him to continue to initiate conversation on this topic with the hope that one day soon, every individual, whether five or 85, will have the opportunity to learn and gain knowledge.  As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Thank you, Mr. President.