In the weeks ahead, Congress will consider rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act and, if some leaders on Capitol Hill get their wish, it will feature dramatically reduced federal oversight of education.
These Congressional leaders point to states’ rights when they argue that the federal government should send $50 billion to 50 states and more than 10,000 school districts each year but ask for little or nothing in the way of results.
Despite America’s long and sordid history of extreme inequity in schooling and in spite of dramatic continuing disparities in educational quality, states’ rights advocates assert the federal government isn’t needed to monitor or assure educational quality and equity.
Whether because of racism, politics, ignorance, or indifference, the brutal facts are that states and school districts have too often neglected their educational responsibilities. The losers have always been children in poverty, children of color, and children with disabilities.
Think back to Topeka, Kan., in the 1950s, where seven-year old Linda Brown was denied the opportunity to attend a nearby public school because she was black. The Supreme Court eventually stepped in and ended legal segregation in the landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education.
Three years later in Little Rock, Ark., despite the Supreme Court’s decision that segregation violated the Constitution, nine young Black students were denied access to a public high school by segregationist Governor Orval Faubus. President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to force Faubus to admit the students to Central High School.
The same thing happened over and over again, in state after state, in the ensuing years, including in Mississippi where my mother Marian Wright Edelman, on behalf of courageous black plaintiffs, sued several segregated local school districts. States and local school districts violated Brown, lawsuits or non-violent protests (which often provoked violent reprisals) eventually led to desegregation orders, and then great vigilance was required to ensure those orders were enforced.
On a parallel track, in the 1960s, federal officials recognized that states and local school districts were systematically spending less to educate poor kids compared to wealthier kids. So in 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to provide federal funds to help make up the difference.
In the 1970s, my mother and many others, including parents of children with disabilities, protested because states and districts weren’t meeting children’s special needs. A seminal 1974 Children’s Defense Fund report called “Children Out of School” chronicled the extent of the problem. The federal government responded by passing a law requiring states and districts to educate children with special needs and providing additional resources (though the feds have never come close to funding the cost of their mandate, which is a huge and largely undiscussed problem).
In 2001, with great fanfare, Congress updated the 1965 ESEA law to require every state and district to assess children’s educational progress regularly and publish results by race, income, disability, and whether English is a second language. The hope was that greater transparency about performance would drive results.
The new ESEA, or No Child Left Behind law, exposed grossly unequal educational outcomes and motivated a range of efforts across the country to address the low performance of low-income children and children of color. That said, the law was deeply flawed. States were encouraged and allowed to lower standards to make it appear they were improving. The tests on which the federal government based its ratings were “dumb”—they assessed students’ knowledge of information not their ability to think, solve problems, or write, and they only measured students within the confines of their grade level. And there was a ridiculous assumption that states would somehow get all of their students to proficiency—that’s right, 100%—by 2014.
In the past five years, the federal government has offered incentives and resources for states to lift academic standards, fix schools that have struggled for decades, offer more choices to parents, and strengthen teaching through more accurate educator evaluations. These incentives and lobbying by state-based education advocates led most states to raise standards, embrace choice, and develop fairer, more rigorous systems for evaluating teachers. (This is happening well in most places, but there’s still a long way to go.)
Now, we all know that federal interventions don’t always work as intended. What sounds good in concept often stumbles in practice, which is why it’s important to revisit laws regularly (that hasn’t happened with No Child Left Behind because of the stalemate in Washington).
That said, it’s patently false and downright irresponsible to suggest states and districts will do the right thing without meaningful oversight from the federal government. The evidence is everywhere that absent real accountability many states won’t ensure that districts protect children at risk.
Today, for example, because education is often funded by local property taxes, states typically spend much less money educating children in the bottom fifth of the economic ladder than the top fifth. In Illinois, for example, a student in the low property value Berwyn North school district just west of Chicago receives $8,588 in combined state and local education funding whereas a student twenty miles further west in suburban Lisle Community Unit School District 202 receives $17,169 in state and local funding.
In addition to getting the short end of the stick on funding in most states, low-income children and children of color are disciplined more severely, have less access to rigorous high school classes, and are more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers. [We only know about these disparities, by the way, because the federal government makes states measure them and publish the results.]
Not surprisingly, fewer than 10 percent of low-income children earn a four-year college degree, compared to about 80 percent of upper-income students.
This is why arguments for little to no federal oversight of education are so disturbing.
There’s also talk by states’ rights advocates of no longer requiring annual testing by states, which would deny parents and educators valuable information about whether students are on track, reduce the ability to measure and improve teacher quality, and make it harder for administrators to know how schools are doing and when they need to intervene. Ironically, this is being proposed just as “smarter” assessments come online that will more accurately measure student learning, including their ability to think critically, solve problems, and write.
If Congress takes the states’ rights, anti-accountability, anti-assessment tack that is being discussed, the outcome will be as predictable as it is tragic. Many states and districts will take the easier path than trying to educate ALL children, disadvantaged students will lose out, and millions of young people who could have become hard-working taxpayers will end up jobless, in prison, or worse.
So when you hear politicians talking about reducing the federal role and restoring states’ rights, what they’re really saying is that they’re passing the buck. They’re saying they don’t want to take responsibility for ensuring ALL children receive a quality public education.
President Harry Truman kept a sign on his desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here.” When it comes to educating our children, Congress should heed that message, not ignore it.