The UDHR declares that the aim of education shall be “the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” (Article 26.2) Education is not placed at the service of the state or of economic powers. Instead, education serves individual human beings whose fullest development occurs in community with others. (Article 29.1) Sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Third Reich, this perspective was a radical reaffirmation of human dignity and purpose.
“The full development of the human personality” implies a broad curriculum in schools, a mission to educate “the whole child” so that children can become their own best selves. In this view education is not just academics but all knowledge that develops us. The UDHR recognizes that education molds our very dispositions, making “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” part of its purpose.
In New York City achieving these human rights standards of education has become increasingly remote. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law financially penalizes schools for not achieving targets in “educational improvement”. New York State chose to use standardized tests to implement the law, thereby pressuring a “teach to the test” mentality in the classroom. Also in 2002 the Albany legislature gave control of the quasi-independent Board of Education to its billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg as part of a deal to pave the way politically for increased state funding to the city’s schools. The mayor in turn staked his political reputation on raising test scores, instituting a corporate-style regime with rewards and punishments for school principals based on test scores. As the tests in question are narrowly focused on particular mathematical skills and reading comprehension, much of what constitutes State standards in other subjects fell by the wayside. The State, for its part, has been complicitous in the lowering of testing standards as it faces judicial and political pressure for funding equity judgment based in part on NYC’s lower test scores relative to the rest of the state. Neither No Child Left Behind nor mayoral control of the schools has worked to improve education in the city’s school. The children are being fed the educational equivalent of empty calories.
Nor are they being treated very well as human beings. A report by The American Civil Liberties Union, Criminalizing the Classroom, documents the excessive use of police procedures in the public schools and how it works to feed the school to prison pipeline. A report by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, Deprived of Dignity: Degrading Treatment and Abusive Discipline in New York City and Los Angeles Public Schools, documents how the learning environment is eroded by chronic overcrowding, zero tolerance discipline policies, lack of support for teachers, and everyday racism. Clearly, “strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental liberties” is not a priority of the NYC school system.
It all falls apart by high school. The four year graduation rate for those making it to 9th grade hovers at 50%. Prospects for these children are bleak: a lifetime of poorly paid jobs, the increased possibilities of prison, ill health, and other misfortunes without the solace or empowerment offered by adequate education.
The failure of the New York public school system is part of the larger cycle of poverty at work in the city. It is not just that children from low income and poor households are less well prepared when they enter kindergarten but that their families and communities lack the power to compel the government to work well at all. Part of this is the economic struggle most public school families are facing every day: 77.7% of public school children meet the federal standards for free lunch or reduced lunch. For a family of four this means an annual income of under $38,220, with $27,600 marking the distinction between poverty and low-income. Federal poverty standards do not take into account local variations in living costs like housing, an enormous expense in NYC where 28% of families spend 50% or more of their income on housing alone. The struggle for the basic necessities runs up against racial discrimination, the dislocations of immigration, housing insecurity, lack of affordable medical care, not to mention the depression and anxiety of trying to cope with it all. A report by the Human Rights Project of the Urban Justice Center Race Realities in New York City documents the racism at work in these conditions.
Organizing for change in the public schools has become more difficult than ever. The governance changes of 2002 permitted the mayor to replace publicly elected community school boards with parent panels selected by parent association leaders, resulting in a massive voter disenfranchisement. The parent panels enjoy no popular mandate. Like the community school boards before them, the parent panels are the supervised by the Board of Education. District superintendents and principals are no longer answerable to their communities but to the mayor. There is no one at the community level who is empowered to make a decision or who can be held to account, itself a violation of state education law. Community based organizations which in earlier times might have organized their communities have been enticed by the contracts to the Board of Education and to the city, not to mention the private philanthropies of the mayor and his financial cohort. Probably in Harlem is the issue of divided community loyalties no more evident where the rampant gentrification might have at least brought into the public schools a critical mass of families with the social capital to demand change. Now these families are siphoned off to charter schools which compete with existing public schools for space, resources, and attention from public officials. The corporate model of education has reduced public school families to mere consumers. The public has been taken out of public education altogether.
The values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights challenge us to act. Human dignity permits no compromise on any front. By fulfilling our duty to our community we more fully develop our own individual selves.
Cecilia Blewer (ICOPE)
Independent Commission on Public Education of NYC (ICOPE) is a member of the New York City Initiative (NYCHRI)