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State Chiefs Urge Congress to Act on Critical Law in American Education | Commentary

We teach our students how a bill becomes a law. We teach them about accountability and deadlines. We encourage them to be good leaders.

Now, our students need to see these lessons applied in Congress.

The cornerstone federal law in American education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, expired eight years ago. For nearly a decade, we have waited for Congress to act and reauthorize this important law, but today, our schools face uncertainty about future federal policy.

While we strive to make progress every day in education at the state and local levels, we keep bumping up against a stagnant, outdated federal law. This isn’t fair to the 50 million kids we are teaching in classrooms across this country.

Our kids only have one chance at an education, and we are shortchanging an entire generation because of Congress’ inaction. States need a stable federal education policy in place, one that fosters the change and innovation already happening in each of our states.

For the past eight years, states have been resourceful to try and meet students’ needs, despite this outdated law. Many of us have received short-term waivers from parts of the law, or we found other workarounds. But none of these options are written in law. They are all subject to change based on who is in office, leaving us to wonder what will happen this year, or the next. What happens when a new president comes into office?

Congress can act this year and give us this stability we need to move forward and do what’s best for kids. The House has a bill on the floor, and the Senate’s education committee just unanimously approved excellent bipartisan legislation. Both of these bills take into account what we, as state education leaders, have been asking for from Congress for years.

We understand the result may not be a perfect bill — no bill ever is. What we want is a good bill, a bill that holds states accountable for results, but gives flexibility in how we work with our teachers and local schools to reach those results. States want to be accountable for the results of our students, and we understand that for many low-income and minority students the current system is not working. This bill must help states as they take on these challenges. Our students cannot wait another year; we must update this law during this Congress.

Through our organization, the Council of Chief State School Officers, we put forward our clear priorities for what we need to see in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We must preserve annual assessment so every child receives an academic checkup at least once a year of how they are meeting the goals we have set for them. But as state chiefs, we believe states should determine the standards those tests measure and what we do with those results.

A reauthorized federal law also should give states the ability to innovate. In working with local school districts, states can set up pilots to see what works well and what doesn’t. That is the only way we can improve public education going forward. We are grateful that members of Congress have included these priorities into both bills. But until Congress acts, the old, outdated law remains the law of the land. That is why Congress must act this year — both the House and the Senate.

A group of state chiefs recently visited with President Barack Obama, the secretary of Education and leaders of the House and Senate education committees in Congress. It is clear they have more in common when it comes to this law than they have differences.

We understand the challenge better than anyone. State chiefs lead in different states with varying contexts and diverse demographics. Yet, we are a united voice on this issue because we face the same challenge: instability.

With a reauthorized law, with a greater level of flexibility, without the unnecessary prescription at the federal level, we know states can and will build better education systems. Give us the opportunity.

Now is the time for all of us to engage on this critical issue and pass a good bill that will create stability for every state, every school, every teacher — and ultimately, every child.

We urge all members of Congress — in the House and the Senate — to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.

June Atkinson is president of Council of Chief State School Officers; Lillian Lowery is president-elect.

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