Last Wednesday, May 17, on the 63rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to advance the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act out of committee. The bill would reauthorize the Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act, which provided federal dollars to the states to improve CTE programs in schools and increase achievement for all students who wish to enter technical fields. Specifically, Perkins has been critical in increasing girls’ participation in CTE courses that are non-traditional for women and in challenging the stereotypes that had previously motivated schools to track girls away from CTE and students of color into low-quality vocational schools.
Brown v. Board of Education initiated the federal government’s engagement and critical role in ensuring equity.
Yet, on the on the anniversary of this landmark decision the Committee voted to advance the bill without a critical tool the Department of Education would otherwise have to make that decision meaningful in expanding opportunity and ensuring equity for all students. Under current law, the Department has the ability to withhold grant funds from perpetually low-performing states that fail to make improvements. This authority to sanction ensures states do right by all students.
Several House members said the bill must be improved going forward. Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Va.), acknowledged the significance of the date and Congress’ task in the spirit of the anniversary:
“Congress must renew, not retreat from, the federal focus of equity and opportunity,” he said. “This is the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which focused on educational opportunity and equality in that opportunity. The federal focus includes a long standing role of the Department of Education . . . to protect and promote the civil rights of all students.”
Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-Mich.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) offered and withdrew an amendment to reinsert the sanctioning authority. Rep. Bonamici pointed out that the authority must be effective in motivating states to boost achievement for underserved students since no Secretary has ever had to withhold funds from a program.
“This begs the question, why are we undoing one of the Department’s tools to enforce equity?” she asked her colleagues. Rep. Polis agreed by emphasizing that the ability to withhold funds through sanctions represents an “important backstop for accountability.”
Indeed, the mission of the Department of Education is to ensure equal access to quality education. It serves as a check on states, many of which have historically denied that access to certain students. Case in point: even after Brown and the order to desegregate schools, many states and localities refused to do so without serious federal intervention, and even then sometimes still resisted. Given that history and knowing that the promise of Brown has yet to be fulfilled, we aren’t here for any attempts to minimize the important role the federal government still plays today in attempting to meet the promise.
So though the amendment to reinsert the Department’s authority to withhold funds from failing programs has been withdrawn in the House, we have high expectations that the measure will eventually be included in the final version of the Act.
I think of the young people, particularly my first class of students who are graduating from high school this year and moving on to making career choices and searching for access, opportunities and quality programming. They do not deserve less protection when it comes to promises on their education.