NEA: How We Must Move Forward on ESEA/NCLB

This week, for the first time since 2001, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is expected to hit the floor of the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives will be debating and voting on the “Student Success Act” (H.R. 5) and the stakes for students across the nation couldn’t be higher. No one wants a repeat of the 2002 ESEA reauthorization commonly-known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, micromanagement of schools at the federal level, and punitive measures for struggling schools. Now, finally, there is serious movement on Capitol Hill.

The arduous legislative process may seem distant to many classroom teachers and education support professionals, but what is being negotiated this week stands to affect every student and public school educator in the United States. Which is why, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, Congress has to get this right.

“We are accountable for student success, and we must ensure that ESEA changes its current focus from punishing students, schools and educators to helping those most in need,” Van Roekel says. “In order for the law to work, we must empower educators so they can focus on what’s important—student learning and achievement.”

NEA strongly believes the foundation of a new ESEA has to be strengthening the federal government’s appropriate role as a strong and positive force for change, and as a driver of equity. Building on this, a new law should support schools with the necessary resources, especially school districts with the most need; encourage innovation and development of 21st Century skills; end the obsession with high-stakes, poor-quality tests and develop high-quality assessment systems; and promote public education as a shared responsibility of parents, communities, educators, and policymakers.

Where does that take us with the Student Success Act, the focus of attention on Capitol Hill this month? Unfortunately, not very far. The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), includes some improvements, but falls well short on a number of key fronts.

While the NEA supports flexibility for individual states, the Student Success Act goes too far, undermining the critical federal role in promoting equity for all students regardless of socioeconomic status.

In a June letter to the House Education Committee before it considered H.R. 5, Mary Kusler, NEA Director of Government Relations, elaborated on this concern: “We are very disappointed that, at a time when there are more students and families in poverty than ever, the bill walks away from the federal commitment to trying to level the playing field for students, tipping the balance too far in favor of states and school districts—they are not even being asked to submit plans to demonstrate how they intend to ensure equity of opportunity for students.”

In addition, H.R. 5 does not push states enough to narrow achievement gaps, does not establish transparency and accountability measures for charter schools, nor does it ensure that assessment and accountability systems work for all students.

As the bill is being debated this week, NEA will also be working to stop attempts by some GOP lawmakers to try to add private school vouchers. Even if a specific private school voucher proposal isn’t introduced, a backdoor attempt might be made to amend the legislation with a “portability” program, which would allow Title I dollars to follow low-income students to the school of their choice.

But “portability”  is just another name for a voucher. It would divert funding from Title I public schools, shortchanging precisely the schools and the students that Title I was created to help: those with the largest concentrations of poverty.

Any ESEA reauthorization should focus on exactly the opposite: addressing existing inequities in public education that harm students most in need, particularly those from communities of color. That is the law’s original intent, and for the educators who have been sounding the alarm over the past decade about how NCLB has fallen so short for students and communities across the nation, it must not be abandoned.

“Educators spend their lives and careers teaching—and protecting—their students,” says Van Roekel. “ESEA must respect educators by empowering us and allowing us to focus on the kind of instruction that students need. As education advocates, our top priority is to make sure that what happens in Washington actually works for students and educators.”

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