History has a funny and sometimes detrimental way of repeating itself.
This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The 1965 law, passed as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s "War on Poverty”, was intended to provide new funding and resources to state agencies and school districts serving low-income students for text and library books, special education centers, and scholarships for low-income college students. It also promised to provide funding to states to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education for all students.
Under the law, Congress has consistently recognized and acted on the need to promote fair and equal access to public schools for: children of color; children living in poverty; children with disabilities; homeless, foster and migrant children; children in detention; children still learning English; Native children; and girls as well as boys.
Much progress has been made, but with more than half of U.S. children in public schools now living in poverty, coupled with a persistent achievement gap among children of color, the value of this law is needed now more than ever.
Sadly, however, the spirit and purpose of the original bill hangs in the balance in its latest iteration: the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015. The Senate HELP Committee recently released a draft of the Every Child Achieves Act, and the Senate education committee is slated for mark up as soon as Tuesday.
While we support the current draft for continuing to ensure federal dollars to create more supports for teachers; equal standards of learning are provided for all students; and improved testing measures are implemented through annual assessments, we find it shameful that there are no federal guardrails that require states to enforce changes once school districts have identified and disclosed their most at-risk and underserved students.
Under the guise of “States Rights”, this law would require districts to only report their vulnerable student populations and choose locally how to intercede, which history tells us can have serious consequences without that federal oversight.
For instance, more than 1,200 high schools, serving more than 1.1 million students, still fail to graduate one-third or more of their students each year. These low-graduation-rate high schools primarily educate low-income students and students of color, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. These numbers are appalling and must be rectified. But in the draft’s current form, a must is more like a maybe.
Without any real enforcement measures, we’re just saying, ‘thanks for sharing’ and moving on with impunity. The collection of data for data sake does nothing. And transparency, without the expectation of actually closing gaps, flies in the face of one of the most substantial laws ever created to fight poverty and injustice.
Don’t get it twisted, there are some states that are doing right by their students, but there are also some states that have the potential to be egregious offenders. They are why we still need a monitoring system; either through federal legislation that clearly lays out the parameters and expectations or by empowering the federal government to oversee and enforce.
Here we are half a century after ESEA was passed and we’re picking apart the most important part of the bill. Our not-too-distant past has shown us that without some form of federal oversight, states and school districts have too often neglected their educational responsibilities and the losers have always been children in poverty, children of color, and children with disabilities.
Instead of watering down the very nature of this historic bill, Congress must show some backbone and require states and districts to not only identify, but take necessary, corrective action to address their disparities.
Otherwise, this law will become nothing more than a toothless resolution.