The Leadership Conference is working diligently to see that Tom Perez is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Perez is an eminently qualified public servant and consensus builder who has dedicated his career to ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and have the opportunity to succeed. He has served with integrity and distinction at the local, state and national level, compiling an outstanding record of achievement.
Getting to "Yes" on ESEA Reauthorization
Fixing the nation’s K-12 public education system to prepare all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, disability status, or, most importantly, ZIP code, for higher education or a job that pays a living wage is one of the most critical challenges facing the United States. The 21st century economy is becoming increasingly reliant on a highly skilled and highly educated workforce, so if the next generation is not ready, our future is in serious jeopardy.
Right now, too many students are unprepared for that new world. While the national graduation rate has gone up, only 72 percent of American students graduate from high school on time. The rates for Blacks (57 percent), Latinos (57 percent) and Native Americans (54 percent), although increasing, are much lower. And even those who do graduate are often not prepared for college.
In this new economy, there are fewer jobs that pay a living wage that require only a high school diploma. Increasingly, at least some postsecondary education is a necessity. ACT, a nonprofit testing organization, however, found that three out of four highschool graduates are not fully prepared and would likely need to take a remedial course in college.
These dismal outcomes are the result of a system that is failing to reach all children, particularly those in high-poverty communities. Several generations after Brown v Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, children’s chances for educational opportunity and success still depend largely on where they live, their race or national origin, or whether they have a disability.
The prospect of reauthorization of the ESEA, the nation’s primary federal education law last reauthorized in 2002 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), represented a critical way to help states and school districts begin to address these challenges and provide high-quality education to every child. Some in Washington, D.C., hoped that there was enough bipartisan support for Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization in 2011, despite an increasingly hyperpartisan atmosphere resulting from the midterm elections.
In fact, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a January 3 Washington Post op-ed that “few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform” and that:
“President Obama in 2009 set a national goal that America will once again lead the world in college completion by 2020. With our economic and national security at risk, this is a goal Republicans, Democrats and all Americans can unite behind. … In the past two years, I have spoken with hundreds of Republican and Democratic mayors, governors and members of Congress. While we don’t agree on everything, our core goals are shared…”
For its part, the Obama administration made clear that ESEA reauthorization was a major priority for 2011. In his State of the Union speech, Obama made a sweeping case for a national commitment to educating every child and said that “[T]he question is whether all of us—as citizens, and as parents—are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”
Getting to “yes” on reauthorization would prove to be elusive, however, as lawmakers struggled to reach agreement on such critical issues as accountability, the targeting of federal funding, and waivers to current law.
Civil Rights Priorities
For the civil and human rights community, it was imperative that Congress reauthorize ESEA in a way that ensured that the federal government continued to protect the right of every child in America to have the resources—including great teachers—he or she needs to be ready for college or a job that would pay a living wage. The community also insisted that schools work to create positive learning environments free of bullying, harassment and excessive suspensions and expulsions, all of which lead to excessive absence from school and lower achievement.
On April 5, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a letter on behalf of its more than200 member organizations to Sen. Tom Harkin, D. Iowa, and Sen. Michael Enzi, R. Wy., the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), outlining its priorities for fixing accountability standards in Title I of the ESEA.
The Leadership Conference called on Congress to enact “strong provisions to preserve accountability, enhance transparency by taking into account the gender of students within each subgroup or ancestry of students in major racial or ethnic groups, and ensure that states and local education agencies take effective action to improve low-performing schools and to close gaps in such areas as achievement, high school graduation, and discipline rates … and to remove barriers to learning.”
House Proposes Re-Targeting of Funds
The House of Representatives and Senate took very different approaches to reauthorizing ESEA. Rep. John Kline, R. Minn., chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, decided to move a series of smaller bills over the summer and fall that he said were “geared toward streamlining and simplifying the federal role in education.” Among the bills considered in the House were measures to eliminate or consolidate dozens of different federal education programs and to renew the federal charter schools program.
Civil rights organizations were particularly outraged by Kline’s proposal to allow more “flexibility” in how federal education funds are spent, an assault on the federal government’s traditional role of ensuring equity in K-12 education by directing dollars to the schools and students with greatest needs. The bill, H.R. 2445, the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act, would create what amounts to a $15 billion slush fund for school administrators and state bureaucrats, who would have the ability to divert federal funds earmarked specifically for low-income students (Title I), English learners (Title III), and other disadvantaged students to pay for other things. For instance, school districts would be able to siphon money from Title I schools and purchase new technology for all their schools, rich and poor alike.
Federal dollars are earmarked to specific communities because states and school districts traditionally have done a poor job of spending money equitably so that all students have access to a decent education. As the Education Trust explains, “to now allow school districts to, on a whim, raid these funds for other purposes would be an enormous step backward, not only for these students, but for the nation as a whole.”
On July 12, a group of civil rights organizations including the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the National Indian Education Association, the League of United Latin American Citizens and The Leadership Conference sent a letter to Kline and committeeranking member Rep. George Miller, D. Calif., strongly urging them to reject the bill. To date, the House has only voted on and passed H.R. 2218, a bill to expand charter schools, but the committee has reported out all of the ESEA reauthorization bills.
Senate Bill Falls Short
In contrast, leadership of the Senate HELP Committee spent most of the year, behind closed doors, hashing out a deal to introduce and pass a single, bipartisan ESEA reauthorization bill. The bill that was ultimately introduced by Harkin in early October retained some important, core provisions of ESEA, including the framework first adopted by Congress in 1994 requiring states to adopt academic standards and to develop and implement a system of statewide assessments aligned with the standards, along with provisions for public reporting of disaggregated data.
The bill was seriously flawed, however, and repudiated the critical and longstanding role of the federal government in ensuring educational equity. Consequently, the broad civil and human rights community ultimately decided that it could not support the bill as written. In a statement released on the day of the Senate HELP Committee’smarkup of the bill, a coalition of 30 civil rights, disability, business and education groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Education Trust, and The Leadership Conference, said:
“[Under this bill] states would not have to set any measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals. They would be required to take action to improve only a small number of low-performing schools. In schools which aren’t among the states’ very worst performing, huge numbers of low-achieving students will slip through the cracks.
Federal funding must be attached to firm, ambitious and unequivocal demands for higher achievement, high school graduation rates and gap closing. We know that states, school districts, and schools need a more modern and focused law. However, we respectfully believe that the bill goes too far in providing flexibility by marginalizing the focus on the achievement of disadvantaged students.”
The ESEA bill was voted out of the Senate HELP Committee in October and will likely reach the Senate floor sometime in 2012.
Waivers to Current Law
In the years after Congress passed the No Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, few states made significant progress in raising student achievement or closing achievement gaps. While there are several, complicated reasons for this failure—including states’ resistance to leveling the playing field with respect to teacher quality and other school resources—nearly all stakeholders agreed that NCLB was due for an upgrade and rewrite.
In particular, concerns abounded about the law’s 2014 deadline for all schools and districts to show that close to 100 percent of students reach grade-level “proficiency” in reading and math. The Leadership Conference and many individual civil rights organizations, however, did not want the federal government to go too far in the opposite direction by granting flexibility that abdicated its responsibility to ensure states and school districts were educating all children.
So when the Obama administration announced in September that it would be developing a plan to offer waivers from NCLB requirements to give states more flexibility to, as Obama said, “come up with innovative ways to give our children the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future,” civil rights groups were concerned that the waivers might enable states and school districts to avoid making real improvements that would close achievement gaps, reduce dropouts, and increase equitable distribution of resources among all schools.
The Leadership Conference along with a number of other civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the National Women’s Law Center, entered into talks with the Obama administration about ways to structure the waiver plan to reduce the “risk of creating confusion and exacerbating inequity among students, schools, and school districts.” The coalition sent a letter to Duncan on September 15 with extensive recommendations to the administration.
Under the plan released by the administration on September 23, states have the opportunity to obtain waivers of current NCLB requirements and to redesign their statewide accountability and assessment systems provided that they comply with the following requirements advocated by the civil rights community:
- Continue to include all students in all schools;
- Set and use annual performance targets for students of color, students living in poverty, English learners, and students with disabilities;
- Address non-academic factors (such as school climate and student health) in turnaround schools; and
- Take steps to remedy the inequitable distribution of qualified, experienced teachers.
Duncan also agreed to require states to meaningfully engage and solicit input from parents, community-based groups, and civil rights groups in developing their waiver applications to ensure a transparent, inclusive process—an important element of the waiver process that civil and human rights groups pushed hard to include.
The waiver process is expected to go on for the next year or so, as the Department of Education reviews applications submitted by states. The Campaign for High School Equity and other education advocacy organizations are committed to working with advocates in states around the country to ensure that states develop new systems and policies that will serve the best interests of all students.
Fixing the K-12 education system so that every single child has access to the highest quality education that can be provided remains one of the most important issues that the nation faces. But, as so often happens in Washington, the process became complicated and challenging very quickly. Putting the focus of ESEA reauthorization on the impact that it needs to have to improve the education of every child in the United States was a key focus in 2011—and will continue to be a priority of the civil and human rights community if the ESEA reauthorization bill moves in Congress in 2012 and when the Obama administration starts working in earnest on waivers to the current law.
Dianne Piché is senior counsel for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund and specializes in education policy.