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Civil Rights Groups Demand More Of Bipartisan Fix To ‘No Child Left Behind’

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) talks with committee member Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, before the start of the committee’s hearing on discussing ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law. CREDIT: SUSAN WALSH, AP
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) talks with committee member Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, before the start of the committee’s hearing on discussing ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law. CREDIT: SUSAN WALSH, AP

The Education Trust, NAACP, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and 33 other organizations wrote a letter to senators last Thursday asking for changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The bipartisan bill, or the Every Child Achieves Act, would reauthorize ESEA but make substantial changes. The 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind, required that schools pass yearly tests and that if schools failed to meet certain improvements, their funding would decrease.

The reauthorization would give states the responsibility of setting improvement standards and the turnaround of low-performing schools would be controlled at the local level and prevent the secretary of education from mandating which steps school districts should take.

The groups want more accountability on student outcomes, data on all student groups and an increased focus on inequities between schools. The coalition of civil rights groups wrote, “We do not support the bill in its current form because, without addressing these issues, it will not fulfill its functions as a civil rights law.”

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While it supports requirements such as the college or career aligned state standards and statewide annual assessment, the coalition wants states to be “required to identify schools where all students or groups of students are not meeting goals …”

The groups said the bill does not account for various groups of students, as the bill doesn’t track data such as different groups of Asian students, students in foster care and pregnant and parenting students in order to better serve the needs of all students.

On equitable funding of the schools, the coalition wrote that although there is new transparency on per-pupil expenditures, school climate and discipline, there isn’t a requirement for states to take any action on the information they have. The groups are also concerned that there isn’t enough federal oversight to enforce the measures included in the bill. Other organizations that signed the letter included the National Urban League, Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Political heavyweights have spoken out on lack of protections for disadvantaged students, such as former California Congressman George Miller (D) and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Miller, who focused on education issues throughout his time in Congress, spoke out earlier in the month and said he was concerned there weren’t enough protections for low-income and minority students.

Duncan argued for more equitable funding of schools through ESEA in a speech to the National Urban League’s Legislative Conference:

“In 23 states, students from low-income families are being shortchanged when it comes to how their schools are funded — in some places, dramatically so … And in 20 states, districts with high percentages of minority students are spending fewer state and local dollars than districts with the lowest percentages of minority students.”

Duncan advocated that ESEA make “real investments” in high-poverty schools and that it expand high-quality preschool and “identify schools that are consistently not making process and provide them with extra resources.”

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The National Education Association has also emphasized accountability for state governments to allocate sufficient resources in its statement on the ESEA goals:

“Equitable does not mean the same. Equitable means resources according to need. The greater the need, the greater the resources.”

The Center for American Progress supports the accountability measures but said more can be done to improve student outcomes.

“The ESEA bill being considered by the Senate puts in place a more holistic school accountability system that will be responsive to the local context and require better, fairer, and fewer tests,” said Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress. “Still more needs to be done to ensure that the lowest performing schools and students receive the intensive support they need to improve,” she said.

It’s uncertain when the U.S. Senate will get to debate ESEA, however, since the body will debate the Trade Promotion Authority this week. Since there are few days left on the legislative calendar before Congress goes on vacation, education advocates may have to wait until the fall for any progress and even then several issues, such as preventing another government shutdown, could take precedence.