The New Segregation

For generations, one promise in America has held true: if you work hard, your children can have a chance at a better life. It is why two generations after my grandfather arrived in the U.S. with nothing, his granddaughter is a Member of Congress.

But entrenched inequality is threatening that promise. Simply being born poor today determines much of your future, from your health to your earnings. Inequality starts young. Through no fault of their own and independent of any choices they make, those born poor do not live as long or earn as much on average. And children born to low income parents are now earning even less than the generations before them. For millions at the low end of the economic spectrum, the American Dream isn't just halted, it's moving in reverse.

That is why, 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of his War on Poverty. The law recognized the power of an education to lift any student, regardless of background, out of poverty. As a teacher for over 20 years, I witnessed firsthand the positive impact an education had on my students. But what I and the authors of the ESEA also recognized was that not every student is the same. Low-income, immigrant, or disabled students often require additional supports. For instance, it doesn't matter how good your teacher is, you are less likely to perform as well in class if you go to school focused on your next meal instead of your next test. And especially today, many low-income students lack a home computer with an internet connection or have parents too busy working multiple jobs to help with homework.

These and myriad other challenges are what the ESEA was intended to address. ESEA directs Federal funding to schools that need it the most -- those with high percentages of low income students. This funding is meant to help with school meals, 24/7 internet access, special education and anything else that can help low income students succeed.

This week -- in time for the fiftieth anniversary of its passage -- Congress is set to consider reauthorization of the ESEA. And while the first ESEA was passed as part of the War on Poverty, the current House Republican reauthorization bill is being written as though that war is over.

The Republican bill, H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, would allow states to redirect funds away from low income schools towards schools with a large percentage of wealthier students. Worse, through a measure called "portability," funding is tied to students, not schools, meaning if a student leaves a poor school for a wealthier school, she takes the ESEA funding with her. In Los Angeles, for instance, this could mean a loss of $782 million for already struggling schools.

Portability may be great for the individual student, but it's not hard to see the devastating effects it will have on schools that are already struggling. Overtime as more students leave, the ones who remain are left with even less. School districts will be neatly organized into the haves and the have-nots. In fact, a recent report by UCLA's Civil Rights Project found that "California is the state in which Latino students are the most segregated," and that Black and Latino children tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor students."

The ESEA was written in the wake of the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck at the heart of segregation, declaring separate is never equal. Fifty years later, we are still fighting to ensure that all children have access to an equal education.

Instead of abandoning entire communities, we should be increasing the amount of money available for low income schools, not siphoning it off. This is why I support the Democrat's alternative bill introduced by the Ranking Member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Bobby Scott. The bill allows states to craft their own research-based accountability systems, and ensures that teachers, schools, and districts are supported with the resources they need. Additionally, the DIPLOMA Act, a bill I introduced at the beginning of this Congress, would help break these barriers by providing targeted resources to help schools reach high-risk students. It would fund programs that integrate emotional, nutritional, and social supports into everyday school life.

Education is supposed to be the path out of poverty, but by divesting from those who need more, we make that path even more difficult. If we are going to ask our students to work hard and achieve the American Dream, we must do our part to ensure that they have the resources they need. We can start by investing in our schools.