Why Do Our Federal Education Policies Continue to Ignore Issues of Equity?

It looks as though, before the end of 2015, Congress will try to vote on a reauthorization of the federal education law we now call No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Alyson Klein, reports for Education Week, “It’s official: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-VA., on Friday announced that they have a framework for moving forward on a long-stalled rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The next step: a conference committee which could kick off in coming days. The goal is to pass a bill to revise the ESEA—the current verson of which is the No Child Left Behind Act—for the first time in 15 years, by the end of 2015.”

Klein reports that action will begin immediately: “Expect the conference to kick off next Tuesday night (tomorrow) and conclude by Thursday. And expect the bill to be on the floor of both chambers after Thanksgiving recess.  That will give enough time for rank-and-file lawmakers to read it and make sure they understand what’s in it before they have to vote on it.”

The compromise, according to Klein’s report for Education Week, will prohibit “the education secretary from interfering with state prerogatives on teacher evaluation, testing, standards, school turnarounds, and more.  That part of the bill seems to be a direct rebuke to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has used waivers to push big changes, especially when it comes to teacher evaluation.”

Klein explains the details of the Senate-House compromise that will be presented to a joint conference committee this week. Annual testing of all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math will continue to be required along with disaggregating and reporting the scores.  States will also be required to identify their bottom-scoring 5 percent of schools along with schools that graduate less than two-thirds of their students in four years. However, the compromise bill requires the states themselves to decide what to do: “States would also have to identify and take action in schools that aren’t closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers. But importantly, the bill doesn’t say how many of those schools states would have to pinpoint, or what they would have to do to ensure that they are closing the gaps—the bill allows state leaders to figure all that out.”

The bill consolidates a number of federal education programs into block grants, continues the 21st Century Learning Center after school program, adds more investment in early childhood education (though these programs would be housed at the Department of Human Services), and keeps some commitment to full service, wraparound Community Schools.

The bill does not increase the role of Title I, the centerpiece of the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a key program of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the program designed to drive federal funds to schools serving a high number or high percentage of children living in poverty. Neither does the compromise bill change the distribution formula for Title I. Congress’s goal in establishing Title I was to try to compensate for vastly unequal investment in public education from state to state and school district to school district.   Fortunately, omitted from the compromise is the Title I portability provision that was included in the House version of a reauthorization.  The Title I portability provision would have allowed a poor child to carry her Title I funds with her as a public school voucher if she left a school district where poverty was concentrated and moved to a wealthier school district.  Title I portablity would have further undermined the federal government’s capacity to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Many had also worried that public Title I portability vouchers would have been the top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would have further drained funding from poor urban school districts.

But beyond avoiding Title I portability, Congress will neither incentivize states to fund schools more fairly nor expand federal programs to ensure opportunities for children whose schools have been persistently under-resourced.  As this blog pointed out a week ago, the Education Law Center recently challenged Congress to consult a 2013 report of the Equity and Excellence Commission that Congress itself chartered, a report that declared, “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

While some have tried to frame No Child Left Behind’s accountability measures—annual standardized testing and reporting of disaggregated scores—as a civil rights initiative because test scores expose achievement gaps, NCLB has never significantly helped school districts overcome vast opportunity gaps that derive from three interwoven realities: racial segregation; increasing economic segregation and concentration of poverty; and unequally distributed and inadequate school funding dictated by policies across the states.  The ESEA compromise that Congress will begin considering this week fails to address the tragic reality posed by these conditions for our poorest children, their teachers and their schools.

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