For the first time in 14 years, Congress appears ready to reauthorize the main federal law for K-12 education and the driving force for equity in our nation’s schools: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
The federal commitment to educational equity is central to the health of our nation’s democracy and the preservation of our economic might in the world. The nation has made progress, but has yet to meet the promise of “quality and equality in the schooling we offer our young people,” as President Lyndon Johnson said when he signed ESEA into law.
It is fitting that as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of ESEA, we have met another notable milestone—for the first time in our nation’s history, children of color are the majority of students in public schools. And that is why the urgency for educational equity and excellence is even more pressing today.
All children in America should have equitable access to excellent educational opportunities that prepare them to graduate high school ready for college and a career. Unfortunately, the current reauthorization bills in both the House and Senate would gut the law of its most important and successful protections for vulnerable students. Now is the time for educators, parents and communities to come together to push Congress to promote equity and accountability, protect civil rights, and provide the range of resources and investments necessary to ensure each and every child graduates high school truly ready to enter college and the workforce.
A strong federal role in education has helped close achievement gaps for every group of children, including Black, Latino, and low-income students. As shown by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the longest standing nationwide examination, these groups have improved their math and reading skills faster than at any time since 1980. But instead of building on this progress, Congress wants to move us backwards.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, with your experience as a governor and Secretary of Education and now as the new chair of the Senate education committee, you have the opportunity to make our education system work for every child. But your current proposal and the corresponding House bill would leave most children behind, and that’s simply indefensible. How can we expect children to succeed if we are cutting up to 74% of the federal dollars high-poverty districts receive for education through ESEA? How can Tennessee children be ready for college and careers when together Memphis City, Knox County, Hamilton County and Shelby County Districts will lose $14.6 million dollars in funding under your proposal?
The fact is we need more investments to continue to reduce achievement gaps. According to the NAEP, just 34% of all Tennessee 4th graders can read proficiently and if we look closer, we see disparities between students: 15% of African American students, 21% of Hispanic students, and 18% of low-income students were proficient as compared to 40% of White students. We will not be able to close achievement and equity gaps by allocating fewer dollars for underserved students. And we can no longer afford to allow family income, ZIP code, disability, language or race to determine a child’s destiny.
While disparities still exist, ESEA has made a real difference for children. Should the pending proposals pass, we would lose all of these protections and give a pass to states to continue denying millions of students an excellent education. We cannot allow that to happen. Americans should insist that any bill that emerges from Congress ensures educational opportunities for all students.
We urge Congress to write a bill that guarantees that all students have equitable educational opportunities that prepare them for college, work and life. ESEA must be strengthened—not watered down. Passing one of the current bills would be disastrous for students of color and those from low-income families. It would set our nation back.
Instead, Sen. Alexander, let’s forge a path forward so every student can succeed.