Reduced federal oversight means local stakeholders must ensure accountability
This has been a hard year for poor children and children of color in a gridlocked and cantankerous Congress. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replacing the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted after gutting a strong federal role in education policy designed to protect these children and jeopardizing their opportunity for a fair and adequate education to prepare them for work in our globalizing economy.
Over the past 50 years under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, too many states violated their responsibility to serve their poor and non-White children equitably, did not comply with the law, and misused huge amounts of the funds intended for poor children for other purposes. With the loss of federal accountability in the new Act, I hope we will not see the mistakes of the past repeated and poor children fall further behind.
Massive and continuing state and local violations of accountability and poor achievement levels for the neediest children resulted in passage during the George W. Bush Administration of the No Child Left Behind Act with bipartisan support, including Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman George Miller, which attempted to build in a much needed stronger federal accountability role. The new Every Student Succeeds Act begins a new era but without needed federal accountability and relying on hopes that all states will fulfill their crucial responsibility to educate all their children fairly and prepare them for work and life.
To ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, all of us — every parent, child and community advocate who cares about our nation’s future — will have to work very, very hard. It is nation-threatening when we look at how our children in public schools are performing in the fourth and eighth grades in 2015 and see more than 75 percent of lower income children, more than 80 percent of Black children, and more than 73 percent of Latino children cannot read or compute at grade level.
There is some good news in the new Act. Some of the most harmful proposals were excluded, including one that would have diverted Title I funds from high poverty to low poverty schools — the portability provision. The new law requires states to continue to track the performance of all children and subgroups of children by race, ethnicity, disability, and English language learners, with data breakdowns by gender.
While states will set their own goals and timelines for academic progress, their plans will require federal approval. States will be required to help fix schools where student test scores are in the lowest five percent, where achievement gaps are greatest, and in all high schools where fewer than 67 percent of students graduate on time using evidence-based programs approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
There are important improvements in the Act for more than 1.3 million children and youth experiencing homelessness also focusing on school stability and success. State and local education agencies must ensure their Title I plans promote identification, enrollment, attendance and school stability of these children.
Local education agencies must reserve a portion of their education funding to support homeless children. State report cards must include disaggregated information on graduation rates and other achievement measures for these children. The new Act increases by more than 20 percent the authorized funding level for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Program which offers critical protections for homeless children.
As hard as it has been for poor and other vulnerable children to move ahead and to make adequate progress even with federal accountability, it will be even harder without it. Parents, community leaders, public officials and child advocates must hold state, district and school leaders accountable for establishing and meeting performance targets for children.
They must join with state and local education agencies to insist on increased resources to address the needs of the most vulnerable children. Child advocates and parents must ask for and review state and local school plans and notify the U.S. Department of Education and local media if they think school districts are neglecting some children or violating the new law.
At stake are millions of children’s hopes, lives and futures. Those unable to read and compute and graduate from high school are being sentenced to social and economic death. They deserve better in the world’s biggest economy.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.