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Restore the Promise of ESEA

February 25, 2015

A high-quality public education can build much-needed skills and knowledge. It can help children reach their God-given potential. It can stabilize communities and democracies. It can strengthen economies. It can combat the kind of fear and despair that evolves into hatred.

Public education, by bringing children together – regardless of race, religion or creed – can promote pluralism. It can also provide the safe harbors our children need, especially in tough times. We have seen in Ferguson, Mo., how public schools gave children the space they needed to process what was happening in their community, while instilling hope for their future.

And we are all constantly reminded of how a high-quality public education, one that enables students to learn teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving – skills they need to compete in the 21st century – can lead to good jobs and a more robust economy.

A study published recently found if we eliminate the achievement gap in the United States, we can grow our gross domestic product by 10% and raise the lifetime earnings of low-wage workers by 22%. This study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth describes strategies that have worked in other countries to bridge the achievement gap.

We narrow that gap by supporting, not sanctioning, children, teachers and schools. We narrow that gap by teaching children how to work with their hands, to work in teams, to solve problems – not just how to ace a test. We narrow that gap by providing early childhood education and helping all third-graders read at grade level. We narrow that gap when we give all kids, not just those kids from wealthier families, access to art and music, librarians and nurses. We narrow that gap by focusing on high-poverty schools that struggle and by helping these schools through interventions such as wraparound services that combat the impact of poverty.

There's a debate stirring now around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a law signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty that, at its root, was about leveling the playing field for children. The law's most recent iteration, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), emphasized testing, which pulled us away from the focus on kids, especially those who are poor – as are half of public school students in the United States.

The good news is that pretty much everyone agrees NCLB has to go. The law allowed high-stakes testing to eclipse all else. It failed to close the achievement gap or reach its intended goals, and it must be fixed. The central question today is how to fix and improve the law so it realizes its original promise and maintains its historical focus on helping disadvantaged children.

The Republican majority’s response to this challenge is woefully inadequate. Their proposal (H.R. 5, the Student Success Act) would undermine more than five decades of work aimed at leveling the playing field for all students. While H.R. 5 would make some needed improvements to accountability, it would also lock in recession-driven cuts to education. It would allow state and local governments to walk away from their responsibility to maintain funding from year to year. And it would divert money meant to go to public schools that teach poor children, giving it to wealthier schools instead.

A report released this week from the White House found that this bill would cap "spending for the next six years at $800 million lower than it was in 2012." This would happen at a time when child poverty rates are alarmingly high and when Title I – the biggest federal education program – has not seen any increase since 2012. The report also found that high-poverty districts could lose $700 million, while more affluent districts could gain $470 million.

Make no mistake: The House bill will further harm our most disadvantaged children. We need a law that gives kids the resources they need, including computers, lower class sizes, nurses and counselors, even when their communities can't afford them. While only in draft form at this point, the majority’s ideas for reauthorizing the law in the Senate are not markedly different than what is fast approaching the floor in the House.

There is another path for lawmakers to follow here, one that would not abandon the promises made 50 years ago by President Johnson. This path would continue to ensure a strong and appropriate federal role in education.

NCLB, Race to the Top and the ESEA waivers prioritized annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school to determine whether all children were grade level by 2014, and used that same single measure to judge schools, districts and teachers.  To undo the damage done by this flawed approach we recommend the following:

  • Build a better accountability system – one that is meant to support and improve and uses multiple, meaningful measures of student achievement once per grade span to judge performance and one that holds schools and districts responsible for providing equitable resources and supports to all schools. With half of public school students living in poverty and more than 30 states funding public education at pre-recession levels, resource accountability can help level the playing field for all children. We need to make sure all kids have access to equal resources, including the computers, lower class sizes, nurses, counselors and adequate support staff.
  • Annual testing should be retained for the purpose of ensuring that parents and communities get information – broken down by race, gender and income level – on how schools and students are performing to help students make progress – not to sanction or scapegoat. In that vein, parents who want to opt out of annual testing should also have the right to do so.
  • Provide struggling students and schools access to the 21st-century solutions they deserve – community schools that help mitigate the impact of poverty; project-based learning that drives critical thinking and problem-solving skills; and individual plans to support students who aren’t reading at grade level.
  • Invest in early childhood education. The value of early childhood education is undeniable. It helps ensure children, especially poor children, have a strong start. And it yields a strong return on the investment: Every dollar we invest in early childhood programs saves us up to $8 in the future. To this end, ESEA should include an additional dedicated source of continual funding for early childhood education and care programs. Early education programs are an integral part of a child’s education continuum and must be given the attention, resources and funds they need.
  • End the federal mandate on teacher and principal evaluation. Studies have shown that testing has increased tremendously because of federalizing teacher evaluations.  As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute recently stated, “Teaching is a very essential profession, even though most teachers are not paid like professionals. If Congress insists on mandates for teachers, why not high-stakes doctor evaluations? Lawyer evaluations? State legislator evaluations? Members of Congress evaluations? Governor evaluations?  For legislators, for example, how often were you absent? How many votes did you miss? Who funded your campaign? Did your votes reflect the wishes of your contributors, or the needs of your constituents? How many bills did you introduce? How many passed? What changes did they produce? Did you help to reduce poverty?” 
  • Adopt the president’s FY 2016 budget request, a proposal that focuses on children and seeks to mitigate the rising percentage of public school students living in poverty. The president’s budget proposes an overdue increase of $1 billion for Title I as well as substantial investments in Head Start, child care, and early childhood education initiatives. Taken together these investments will help provide critical services to disadvantaged children at a time when many of their communities can't afford to do this for them.

We have an opportunity with the ESEA reauthorization to help reclaim the promise of public education. The AFL-CIO calls on Congress not to miss this chance by enacting a new ESEA that returns to the law’s original roots and invests in the things frontline educators know our students need to receive a high-quality public education to succeed in college and the work of work. Our society also needs a well-educated citizenry that thinks critically, engages fully in our democracy and helps contribute to our economic competitiveness as a nation.

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