Failing Schools--Not Just a Label, a Fact

Last Thursday, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced a series of five bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Sadly, these bills are replicas of the same rhetoric and philosophy introduced by their colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives--aimed at limiting and restricting the role of the federal government in education. Although we at NCLR agree that we must take swift action to reauthorize ESEA, I simply can't think of another strategy that would take us further away from the intentions and underpinnings of this law.

ESEA in its very essence is a civil rights law. And that includes its current version, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was designed to achieve education equity for low-income and minority students after decades of neglect by states. Prior to NCLB, states had no incentive to fix failing schools and many, quite frankly, didn't care to do so. Once NCLB was signed into law, it shed light on the fact that poor Latino and Black children were at the very bottom of the achievement gap. Moreover, it did something unprecedented and applied labels to schools that publically displayed what was happening in classrooms across America. What these labels described were failing schools, especially in communities with high concentrations of minorities living in poverty.

I suppose for some, having too many schools labeled as failing is a scary thought. But, from my perspective, this label accurately describes classrooms whose seats are filled with children of color every day--especially considering that only 17% of fourth grade Hispanic students are at or above proficient in reading. That is failing.

The federal government doesn't have to dictate rules for every school and school district, but it must set and maintain aggressive goals in order for states to live up to the promise of providing equal opportunities for all children. That means focusing on all schools--not just the bottom 5%--and that means setting aggressive goals for closing the achievement gap between subgroups of students. History tells us that states, if left on their own, will continue to mask the glaring challenges in schools throughout the country. This means that a strong, smart federal role is needed to improve our public education system. Legislation to weaken the federal role in education would be a step backward for the Hispanic community and a serious mistake for legislators.

Let's not shy away from real education reform out of fear of attaching labels to schools. Instead, let's continue to have high expectations for all of our nation's children, and put politics aside to take our public schools from "failing" to "great."


This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.