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Posted Oct. 27, 2010

Panel: Underserved Populations Struggle for Access to Education

Presenters discuss human rights in education at a Law School symposium.

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Contact: Rob Seal

Women, the poor and racial minorities face an excess of obstacles in their pursuit of education, according to a panel on human rights and education that met at the Law School.

The panel discussion was part of a daylong symposium, Human Rights in Education: Comparative Perspectives on Local and International Advocacy, which brought together scholars and advocates from central Virginia and from around the world to discuss unequal access to education.

In the day’s second panel, speakers from Arizona, South Africa and Suriname discussed the struggles of underserved populations to obtain an education — what the Brown v. Board of Education decision called — “the very foundation of good citizenship.”

Nina Rabin, director of the Border Project at the University of Arizona Southwest Institute for Research on Women, discussed the fallout from Arizona’s controversial SB1070, which she said has undermined education for immigrant worker’s children. But the problems go beyond Arizona, she said.

“Arizona public schools bring into stark relief the contradictions and tensions in this country’s treatment of immigrant students in the public school system,” Rabin said.

Rabin cited the 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, as a protection for immigrant students. In that case, the court struck down a state statute that attempted to restrict public education on the basis of citizenship status.

Rabin compared Plyler to Brown v. Board of Education. Both reveal the strengths and limitations of the Supreme Court’s ability to address the systemic inequities in our public education system, she said.

But policy and a Supreme Court decision only do so much. In Arizona, fear is a persistent obstacle to immigrant students, she said. If a child goes on a field trip, will he or she be arrested?

“Even many teachers who are not opposed to Plyler voiced open frustration with undocumented children in their classrooms because of their perceived impact on test scores,” Rabin said.

Laws like Arizona SB1070 “are chipping away at Plyler’s vision, and the current Supreme Court is clearly not going to step in and defend the rights at stake,” she said.

Rabin hopes legislation such as the Dream Act will reverse the current trend and provide pathways to citizenship for immigrant students and their families.

Similar legal certainties are undermined by cultural realities in South Africa, according to Salim Vally of the University of Johannesburg and director of the Education Rights Project.

“Since the end of apartheid, legislation and groups have arisen to protect the rights of marginalized and vulnerable people, but despite this normative framework, the everyday reality undermines those policies, that legislation, and our constitution,” Vally said.

Vally’s Education Rights Project is an attempt to put existing laws into practice. “We have a liberal democracy and the notion is that we have a consensual political system, we have pluralism,” he said.

“But can we say that a single mother living in an impoverished township has the same access to justice, to power and privilege as an executive who lives in the suburbs and works for a multinational corporation?”

Putting laws and ideals into practice is a duty, he said. “South Africa, like the U.S. and other countries, owes its current wealth partly to migration and labor over many decades.”

But Vally warned against being patronizing. “Quite often we see migrants and other marginalized and vulnerable communities as hapless victims, and that is problematic,” he said.

Ellen-Rose Kambel of the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname doesn’t bother waiting for the law and policy to catch up to the educational needs of indigenous people the South American nation.

Confronted by indifferent government officials, tribes in Suriname created their own indigenous education programs and their own textbooks, she said.

According to Kambel, Suriname has no constitutional recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples. There are no NGOs or universities to address the problems. “All children in Suriname suffer from a steep decline in the quality of education,” she said.
Rather than wait on the government to act to protect indigenous culture and language through culturally specific curricula, Kambel and the children of Suriname took what she calls a “bottom-up” approach.

“Start small. But start,” she advises. “Don’t wait till everyone is in agreement and in line because that’s not going to happen.”

The symposium coincided with an inter-disciplinary seminar co-taught by Deena Hurwitz and Carol Anne Spreen of the Curry School of Education with support from the College, the Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy, the Curry School of Education and the Law School.  

 Reported by tim arnold