Last week, Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray released the Every Child Achieves Act—their proposal to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the major federal K-12 education bill, which was designed to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students. Markup of the bill in the Senate HELP committee starts today and is likely to continue at least through Friday. And while the proposed bipartisan bill is better than the discussion draft Senator Alexander released earlier this year, it doesn’t do enough to ensure the most disadvantaged students get the resources they need to learn. Here are three of the reasons why:
1. The bill lacks the guardrails necessary to ensure that states take action to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged students. Current law requires states to intervene when a school district, year after year, fails to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students—like children of certain races or ethnicities, children from low-income families, English language learners and children with disabilities. However, under the proposed bill, even if certain subgroups of students (such as African American students) repeatedly do not meet standards, a state can decide that its school districts do not have to do anything about it. That means a state and its school districts can receive ESEA funds even if they neglect the very students ESEA is meant to help. History tells us, unfortunately, that many states and districts will do only what is required when it comes to the kids who struggle the most to succeed.
2. The bill keeps reporting of student performance data in silos—by race/ethnicity, gender, disability status, English proficiency, economic status, and migrant status. Breaking down data by these categories is a good thing, but without more detail schools and other stakeholders will not know how students at the intersections of these categories are doing. For example, without cross-sectional data, there is no way to compare the academic performance of African American girls to white girls, or to compare African American students with disabilities to white students with disabilities. We’ve already seen how the absence of this data fuels the (incorrect) assumption that girls of color are doing just fine because girls overall tend to graduate from high school at higher rates than boys overall. By not requiring schools to report these data in a way that can be cross-tabulated, or segmented, by gender and disability within each race and ethnicity category, disparities in achievement for certain groups of children will continue to be masked. And exposing these disparities is important to schools and communities, so they can properly target interventions to help kids at the intersections of race, gender and disability.
3. The bill misses the opportunity to address barriers to learning that affect vulnerable youth. The reauthorization of ESEA presents a unique opportunity for lawmakers to make sure all students have healthy learning environments—environments where LGBT youth are safe from bullying and harassment; where students aren’t pushed out by excessive discipline policies or policies that discriminate against student parents; where girls and boys alike have equal access to opportunities to learn about STEM fields and develop leadership skills in athletics and other extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, the proposed bill fails to address these issues that are central to student success.
All students deserve access to quality education that gives them a meaningful chance to succeed in college or their careers. And historically, ESEA has played an important role in keeping states from shortchanging disadvantaged students. Let’s hope that the HELP Committee amends the bill to make it stronger and to carry out the goals of ESEA, which are still very relevant today.