Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Public Education as a Civil Right: Reauthorization Must Reflect ESEA's Original Purpose

Jack’s op-ed carried by the California Progress Report uncovers the original intent of ESEA/NCLB as enacted in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and suggests that legacy be lived up to during the reauthorization process:

With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) getting underway on Capitol Hill, a meaningful anniversary will pass unobserved in Washington. Forty-five years ago this Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act, rebranded by the Bush Administration as No Child Left Behind, into law. With the stroke of a pen, the federal government’s role in public education was revolutionized, placing emphasis on ensuring educational opportunity in low-income communities.

A Revolution in Education

The law came as a critical step in the Great Society legislation package designed to fight poverty and racism. For Johnson, who was trained as a schoolteacher and had taught in a poor Latino community in Texas, ESEA held as much potential for fighting racial injustice as the Civil Rights Act passed the previous year. With the federal government mandating desegregation, education commissioner Francis Keppel designed ESEA to ensure students of color were not just seated in classrooms, but that they also received a high quality education and had the real opportunity to continue to college.

In the decade following its inception, ESEA played an instrumental role in the desegregation process. Through Title I, the portion of the law providing funding for schools with large populations of low-income students, the Department of Education gave districts a strong incentive to follow through with desegregation promises. If they didn’t, they would miss out on federal dollars. At the same time, the policy also guaranteed resources for struggling schools when states and districts failed them, providing an essential boost for schools serving communities of color that had been neglected for years.

Legacy Lost?

Since becoming law, ESEA has been reauthorized by Congress about every five years. This process allows for policy modifications and improvements, as seen by the addition of funding provisions for English language learners and massive investments in educational innovation.

However, promises made during the reauthorization process have often fallen flat. For instance, in 2002 George W. Bush promised substantial increases in Title I funding for low-income schools. The money never materialized and to date the fund remains discretionary and not mandatory, leaving it susceptible to political horse-trading in the budget process.

With reauthorization three years overdue, the Obama Administration released its blueprint for education reform last month, outlining a model of improvement through increased competition and accountability. Federal spending on competitive grants is to be increased by $3 billion while the amount for formula grants, that is guaranteed money for struggling schools in poor communities, will be slightly reduced.

Title I funds, the federal government’s main tool for achieving equality in educational opportunity, will remain stagnant. With the four intervention models mandated for the nation’s lowest performing schools highly punitive, Title I schools should be given as many resources as possible to avoid becoming worst case scenarios.

Pitfalls and Potentials

In the race to win federal funding, the strongest competitors among states and school districts are those who can best demonstrate their proposed reforms will yield real results for their students. It stands to reason that those who can invest the most money and manpower into their proposals will have the best shot.

If states or districts are strapped for such resources or even if they are simply administered poorly, it seems logical that they will struggle to be competitive. In this way, schools that serve poor communities of color may end up at an automatic disadvantage when vying for federal money. The Department of Education must take this fact into account when it is evaluating funding applications or the strategy will simply intensify inequalities.

Over the year, Congress will set to work reauthorizing ESEA. Reauthorization necessarily involves the classic dance of interest politics – unleashing lobbyists and activists armed with slogans and statistics. In the midst of the clamor, it’s possible to be sidetrack and lose touch with what the legislation was actually intended to do: guarantee quality public education for poor students and students of color. Given its civil rights legacy, that goal is the heart and soul of this law and it must be boldly reaffirmed.



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