The British educator Robin Alexander reads the blog and has a question about whether American children have a right to an education. His thoughts were spurred by Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker, posted this morning, about whether education is a fundamental right. He wondered whether American education has been influenced by international agreements and norms. The short answer is no. The national education goals were set in 1989. I did not work for the U.S. Departmentof Education until mid-1991. I never heard anyone refer to international conventions or treaties about the rights of the child. I feel sure Betsy DeVos has never heard of them.

Robin Alexander writes:


While it’s beyond my competence to comment on the constitutional and legal aspects of the case for or against education as a fundamental right in the US, it might be worth broadening the debate to take in relevant international commitments to which the US is a signatory. These include:

1. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). https://www.unicef.org.uk/what-we-do/un-convention-child-rights/ . Article 28 states that ‘Every child has the right to an education. Primary education must be free and different forms of secondary education must be available to every child …’. Unfortunately, although the US is a signatory to UNCRC it stands conspicuously apart from the rest of the world’s governments in not having ratified it https://www.humanium.org/en/convention/signatory-states/ .

2. The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted but now superseded (see 3 below). Goal 2 was Universal Primary Education http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/education.shtml .

3. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), unanimously adopted by all UN member states in 2015. Goal 4: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ with a target date of 2030. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/ .

The problem here, it will immediately be recognised, is that the US hasn’t ratified UNCRC while although it has adopted the MDGs and SDGs these were/are directions of travel rather than legally binding obligations. In any event, even if the US had ratified UNCRC, Trump’s record on ratified treaties (e.g. on climate change and Iran) shows that as far as he is concerned these exist to be upheld or disregarded at will. On the other hand, many signatories to UNCRC, adoption notwithstanding, have in practice displayed little commitment to many of its articles so they are hardly in a position to condemn the US for taking what is perhaps a more honest line.

Yet although US administrations tend to prefer to avoid tying their and the states’ hands on such matters, the UNCRC and SDGs (and the weight of international support they have attracted), might at least be invoked to exert a degree of moral leverage to accompany the legal forensics in Jill Lepore’s article at the state government level to which education is constitutionally reserved under the US Constitution’s 10th Amendment and which I realise is one of the problems here. Or perhaps not … Were you in the US Department of Education when the six 1991 National Education Goals were agreed? Food for thought?