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Cornell Law School clinic, Colombian organizations partner to help ensure education for all children

The Colombian Constitutional Court announced its decision May 31 that all public primary schools in the nation must cease charging students tuition fees. The decision follows strategic litigation supported by the Colombian Coalition for the Right to Education, Camilo Ernesto Castillo, legal advisor to the Coalition and researcher and fellow at the University of Rosario, and Cornell Law School's International Human Rights Clinic.

The organizations challenged the constitutionality of Colombian Article 183 of Law 115 of 1994, which the Colombian government used to justify charging students for primary education. The Court found that the law may not be read to permit the government to charge tuition fees for primary education, because a contrary interpretation would violate the Colombian Constitution and its international human rights treaty obligations.

"This is a historic decision that opens the door to primary education for children from the poorest families in Colombia," said Castillo. Sital Kalantry, associate clinical professor of law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Law School, added: "The Constitutional Court's decision reaffirms Colombia's international human rights treaty obligations that require Colombia to provide free and compulsory primary education to all Colombians."

The Constitutional Court issued its order in response to a petition written and filed by Castillo and Esteban Hoyos Ceballos, J.S.D. student at Cornell Law School and a former member of the Cornell Law Clinic. Melissa Del Aguila, J.D. and LL.M '10, a Cornell Law Clinic student, and Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum, Women and Justice fellow in the Cornell Law Clinic, assisted in drafting the petition. "The most important task ahead is to push for full implementation of this historic decision," said Hoyos, who is also a professor at EAFIT University Law School in Medellín, Colombia.

The petition for free education received support from the Colombian Coalition for the Right to Education and numerous important grassroots organizations in Colombia that have been key to bringing the issue of free education to the national agenda. The Coalition is a network of organizations that coordinates with the Latin American Campaign for the RIght to Education (CLADE). The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the Association for Investigation and Social Action (NOMADESC) and the Cornell Law Clinic also filed an amicus brief in the case. "The Constitutional Court ruling was the culmination of collaborative efforts among many grassroots Colombian organizations and the Cornell International Human Rights Clinic," said Getgen Kestenbaum.

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Joe Schwartz