Senators Just Introduced An Education Bill To Upend 1965 Civil Rights Legislation

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Ruark

Among the civil rights-era laws passed to improve equality was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The act sought to achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality by improving federal dollars to states to support the educational needs of disadvantaged students. In the decades since, the federal government has worked — despite state resistance — to increase equity and expand opportunity for disadvantaged students.

But today, students’ right to a high-quality education is threatened.

Senator Alexander, the Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, wants to destroy the federal government’s ability to protect students’ right to a high-quality education. His recently released proposal to reauthorize ESEA, the country’s most important education law, will unapologetically eliminate states’ obligation to close race-based achievement gaps and to improve the quality of education afforded students of color.

This rollback threatens to deepen inequities and this is unacceptable.

Senator Alexander’s belief is that education would improve and gaps would close if only the federal government would trust states. Unfortunately, states’ track records on effectively educating students of color is abysmal. Nearly every state has been sued for operating grossly inequitable school funding systems that provide economically disadvantaged students and students of color with less resources. Today, each state has persistent achievement gaps between white students and students of color.

Senator Alexander’s bill does not require that states be accountable to every student. He does not require them to provide equitable access to effective teachers, high-quality curricula and instruction, college preparatory courses, or indeed any of the hallmarks of a world-class education. To make matters worse, he removes any provisions empowering parents, communities, or the federal government to do anything when state education systems fail students of color. In short, the so-called “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act” privileges antiquated ideas of states’ rights over the civil rights of students.

If this bill were to become law, some states would nevertheless try to do the right thing. However, the stakes for these students and for the country are too high to take the chance that they wouldn’t. In this instance, Alexander would do well to remember Ronald Reagan and “trust but verify.”

Simply put, civil rights – particularly those of people who historically have suffered from structural racism and disenfranchisement – cannot be left up to the states. In no place is that more critical and apparent than in public education.

Max Marchitello is Policy Analyst for the Pre-K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.