Critics say GOP education reform would hurt poor and Black students

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that a strong ESEA is vital to ensuring that states and school districts are living up to their obligation to provide a quality education for all. (Freddie Allen/NNPA)
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that a strong ESEA is vital to ensuring that states and school districts are living up to their obligation to provide a quality education for all. (Freddie Allen/NNPA)

As the Republican-led Congress prepares to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), civil rights groups, educators and student advocates fear that current proposals leave many poor and Black children behind.

According to analysis by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington, D.C. –based progressive think tank, the bill submitted by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), eliminates accountability for low-performing schools, lowers academic standards, and abolishes targeted, state-level graduation goals for students of color.

A White House brief on the ESEA reauthorization bills said that the proposal being considered in the House of Representatives will cap spending on the ESEA for the next six years at $800 million lower than it was in 2012, eliminates “guarantees that education funding reaches classroom,” and “some especially high-poverty school districts would see cuts as large as 74 percent.”

In her weekly column, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, said no ESEA bill would be better than the one now making its way through Congress.

She wrote, “H.R. 5 also removes strong accountability provisions required to make sure the children who need help most will actually be helped. It is morally indefensible and extraordinarily expensive that we have 14.7 million poor children in our country – 6.5 million of them living at less than half the poverty level. All of these poor children exceed the combined residents in all 50 state capitals and the District of Columbia.”

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a network of more than 200 national research and advocacy groups, said that the ESEA reauthorization proposals currently pending in Congress would strip millions of students and their parents of the protections and resources that have helped them to hold their schools accountable for equitable funding and treatment.

“For the students we represent, students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners and low-income students, a strong ESEA is vital to ensuring that states and school districts are living up to their obligation to provide a quality education for all on an equal basis not just for the most privileged or wealthy,” said Henderson.

On a recent call with reporters, Henderson said that the coalition of 34 national civil rights and education groups supported annual statewide assessments to evaluate student progress, transparency of the test results and additional data that empowers parents to advocate on behalf of their children.

Chanelle Hardy, the executive director and senior vice president for policy at the National Urban League, said that the legacy of the Black community’s commitment to education stems from the days of slavery when Blacks learned to read in secret and at risk to their own lives.

“This is not a conversation about how we need to convince our community to care about achievement,” said Hardy. “This is about our nation’s commitment to a system of education that prepares every child for college work and life. This is a fundamental civil rights principle and a fundamental principle of justice.”

William Hayes, the principal at Franklin D. Roosevelt Academy in the Glenville community of Cleveland, Ohio, also expressed concerns about the Republican proposals for reforming the ESEA, which was last updated more than a decade ago through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) under President George W. Bush.

“This vote is about equity and accountability, yet everyday my students face the brutal reality that they live in a society that has not achieved its promise for a more equitable distribution of outcomes and opportunities,” said Hayes.

Hayes said that 98 percent of the students at his school are African American, 100 percent qualify for free lunch and 28 percent receive special education services.

One of Cleveland’s wealthiest subdivisions borders Glenville to the north and the city’s cultural center with museums, botanical gardens and the Cleveland Institute of Music to the south, Hayes said. The Cleveland Clinic, perennially ranked by as one of the best hospitals in the nation, is just a 15-minute walk to the east of Glenville.

“Surrounded by so much prosperity and bright images of the American Dream, my students could easily be forgotten, were it not for our federal government ensuring that communities remain accountable,” added Hayes.

Hardy said that civil rights groups were extremely concerned about resource equity and ensuring that low-income students at majority-minority schools have access to early childhood education and high quality teachers.

Researchers at CAP found that school districts spent $733 less at schools that were 90 percent minority compared to schools that were 90 percent White. That money could be spent on veteran teachers, school counselors and laptop computers.

“It’s no secret that more than 50 years after Brown our communities and schools are still very much segregated however the concentration of poverty has become more exacerbated as affluent families of color have left our communities to go elsewhere,” said Hayes.

Nancy Zirkin, the executive vice president of the Leadership Conference, said that no one can deny that NCLB has room for improvement, “but the proposals in front of Congress now throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Zirkin explained, “These proposals bend over backwards to accommodate state and local entities that have both failed our children and avoided any real accountability for their failures.”

NCLB was characterized by high stakes testing that led some school districts to trim physical education and arts programs to make room for more rigorous reading and math course work. Educators railed against “teaching to the test” and questioned the need for multiple assessments throughout the school year.

Hayes said that he wasn’t naïve to the unintended consequences of the “accountability movement” that came with NCLB, including the narrowing of the academic curriculum and the over-testing of students linked to controversial teacher evaluations, but he still didn’t believe the shortcomings of the law warranted a complete hands-off approach from the federal government.

Hayes said he was frustrated at the thought of a federal government willing to step away without stepping back to the table to help to fix NCLB.

Hayes added: “As a school leader I can’t imagine a time where my administrative team could ever see a problem with our students and say to teachers, ‘It didn’t work so I’m just going to let you figure it out by yourselves.’”

But in the eyes of some educators and civil rights leaders that’s exactly what the Republican proposals do.

“We can’t go back to a time when these schools were ignored,” said Zirkin.

Hardy agreed.

“We can’t assume that we have good information on student achievement based on socio-demographic factors,” said Hardy. “We have to do our part with our federal tax dollars to concentrate those resources where they need to be.”

Thanks to Freddie Allen and the NNPA for sharing this story with us.