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ESEA Reauthorization: A Chance to Right a Wrong | Commentary

By Jitu Brown and Judith Browne Dianis Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, legislation designed to support education as a force for equal opportunity. As part of his “war on poverty” agenda, Johnson was convinced the law would close the achievement gap. As Congress seeks to reauthorize ESEA this year, there is an incredible opportunity to finally right some of the grave wrongs in the public education system that have sustained the opportunity gap for low-income children.  

In 2001, ESEA got off track with the passage of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind promising achievement and accountability. Public schools have since been mired in drills of standardized testing, with a focus on test results as the sole measure of achievement. Instead of increasing investment and resources for success however, test results have led to the closure of neighborhood public schools at dramatic rates across the country. As communities of color lose their schools in the wake of disinvestment and high-stakes testing, public education dollars are being diverted toward privately operated charter schools. The irony of it all: These charters, many of which are dismally low performing and sometimes profit from taxpayer dollars, are run with practically no oversight or accountability.  

The testing craze has also led to the rise of zero-tolerance school discipline policies, pushing many children out of classrooms. Children seen as having disciplinary problems are treated as disposable in the name of “achievement.” To avoid a failing school label, more and more students are simply pushed out. These policies lead to high dropout rates, lower academic achievement and students being routed on pathways to prison instead of receiving much needed support.  

Unfortunately, ESEA has helped advance an education “reform” agenda, which is hurting the low-income children who were supposed to be its beneficiaries. These are disproportionately children of color. In the 2012-2013 school year, for example, 50 Chicago public schools were closed. While African-Americans made up 43 percent of all Chicago students, they were 87 percent of the students affected by the closures. Last year, in New Orleans’ Recovery School District, the city closed its last remaining public school, making it the nation’s first all-charter district. Of the students impacted, 1,000 were Black. Only five were White. The racial disparities in school discipline are also stark, with Black and Latino children pushed out of classrooms at rates significantly higher than their White counterparts for the same behaviors.  

These policies have not produced higher quality education. Public schools must now compete with privately operated charter schools for federal funding and local tax dollars. Children of color are increasingly pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. School closures disrupt the education of students who must be relocated and shuffled around, sometimes multiple times. Fifty years after ESEA, and 14 years after its reauthorization to No Child Left Behind, the achievement gap still exists.  

This is not the legacy envisioned by Johnson, and it is not the legacy that should be carried forward as Congress aims to reauthorize ESEA. Education can indeed be a powerful lever out of poverty, but only if this moment is used to reinvest in the needs of our most struggling schools and communities so that all students can succeed. This means a reauthorized ESEA that stops the misuse of standardized testing for high stakes decisions and ends aggressive, unregulated expansion of privately operated charter schools that are flooding our cities. It means establishing a moratorium on closing public schools and providing resources for community-guided models for improving them, ensuring that local problems are addressed by community-driven solutions. It means providing funds to encourage common sense discipline practices that support students and create nurturing environments.  

As the promise of ESEA has become more elusive in the midst of school closures, pushouts and turnarounds, too many children are slipping through the cracks. Congress must use this opportunity to commit to the success of every student, to invest in them by investing in their schools and communities. In order to truly bring equity into our school system, where all students have the opportunity to succeed, we can do better — and we must do better.  

Jitu Brown is the national coordinator of the Journey for Justice Alliance, a coalition of grassroots education groups that works across 21 cities. Judith Browne Dianis is the co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization.

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