Fifty Years of Education Reform

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Rewind to 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson was deep into the Civil Rights Movement and his War on Poverty, which led him to realize that mending public education could directly hinder poverty’s grip on American citizens. He recognized that low-income students were not receiving the same level of education as middle to upper class students and felt that this injustice needed to be corrected.  The President, who felt that public education helped him out of poverty, signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. This law authenticated his belief that full educational opportunity should be a national goal. The objective of the ESEA was to provide federal grants to state educational agencies to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education.

The “ESEA offered new grants to districts serving low-income students, federal grants for text and library books, it created special education centers, and created scholarships for low-income college students.” (source)

This bill was the most comprehensive federal education bill ever passed and taught Americans the importance of equality of public education.

Fast-forward to 2002. Congress and President George W. Bush reauthorized ESEA, but changed its name to “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) and restructured the law. This new law’s intention was to shine light on achievement gaps that many underprivileged students were still facing in the public education system. President Bush felt that this law would spark a conversation about further improvements that needed to be made in the United States regarding education. NCLB called for the increased accountability on state’s public schools. This required states to create systems comprised of annual testing in reading and mathematics for students in grades 3-8 to monitor the effectiveness of their teachers and programs. The supposed purpose of these tests was to challenge state standards and break down the results into different demographics to ensure that no child was actually being left behind. However, the law seemed to create handfuls of mandates without any dedicated federal funds. Many school districts needed to dip into their reserve funds to support the program; a program which ended up just trying to raise test scores without putting additional emphasis on the quality of learning in lower income communities. It created a framework to expose and punish the school districts that were not meeting standards, yet did not have an explicit plan for improvement. Today, NCLB is still the latest version of ESEA, but is outdated and is in need of a makeover.

Welcome to 2015, the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s foresight on equal education for all. The current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is in agreement with a majority of the country about the inefficiencies of NCLB and recently called for a new vision for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Duncan plans to reaffirm Johnson’s original promise of the law and guarantee equity within our public education system. He asks for Congress to create a law “that recognizes that schools need more support and more money, more resources than they receive today” (source). Duncan asks for the law to encompass universal preschool, classes that prepare students for college, and better training and support for teachers. He emphasized to Congress that educational opportunity is a civil right and our moral duty to provide for every child. Secretary Duncan and President Obama feel that this reform on ESEA is vital for our economy and have dedicated $2.7 billion of the 2016 budget toward these efforts.

Currently, and as always, Democrats and Republicans are not seeing eye-to-eye on the reform of ESEA. Within the House of Representatives, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita introduced a reauthorization bill to replace NCLB. Their bill, called Student Success Act, entails releasing federal control of public education and putting in the hands of state and local governments. Democrats are criticizing Kline for not getting input from important stakeholders and submitting the bill to the House floor without any hearings . Also, Republicans have been blocking every amendment that would cost additional money; even those that would create beneficial, bi-partisan supported programs. In addition to the lessened federal control, the Student Success Act would strengthen student and teacher data-privacy provisions, require states to report on the achievement of military students, require the Institute of Education Sciences to draft an annual report documenting the cost savings from the reduced federal role in this bill, and allow states to delay using test scores of English-language learners in accountability systems for two years for math and three years for reading and English/language arts. None of these amendments coincide with Duncan’s priorities or Johnson’s original goal for equality within education. Additionally, none of these amendments seem to have the ability to jumpstart the reform that is needed in under resourced communities. Although the Student Success Act is just a bill that passed through committee, it is a reference to the attitudes of the current Congress towards public education. Hopefully, in the next few weeks, this new education reform bill will go through a great deal of reform of its own.

Alison AbramsAlison Abrams is currently pursuing her Bachelors of Science in Mathematical Sciences at Bentley University with a Liberal Studies Major in Ethics and Social Responsibility. Through her experience with interest groups and political campaigns and her volunteerism at various non-profits, Alison has developed a passion for political action and social justice. She is very excited that her internship with the Governmental and External Affairs department here at Wheelock has allowed her to research and discuss various policy issues.