Kevin Kosar, a fellow at a conservative think tank, wrote a blog post for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute aimed at Education Secretary John King’s proposed approach to ensuring all children benefit from federal dollars governed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Kosar took issue with Secretary King’s statement that ESEA is a civil rights law.
Kosar’s arguments against calling ESEA a civil rights law are flawed, but what is troubling about his piece is that it distracts from the real issue.
Secretary King referenced the civil rights origins of ESEA as a means of justifying proposed rules that would require districts to prove they’re spending Title I funds given to them by the federal government on low-income students. Kosar attacks the civil rights argument in order to delegitimize King’s point that the federal government should direct more resources to the kids who need them the most.
Kosar acknowledges that while Secretary King isn’t the first to talk about ESEA being a civil rights law, the civil rights branding in this instance is offensive because it is used to mask federal overreach.
Kosar claims that ESEA, as adopted in 1965, was not a civil rights law, but an anti-poverty measure. Kosar supports this claim by observing that the statute neither says the words “civil rights,” nor did President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the bill at his hometown school, instead of one that served predominantly children of color. Kosar adds that ESEA didn’t create an entitlement or speak of equalizing spending.
National civil rights leaders don’t agree with Kosar.
Neither does history.
President Johnson himself called the ESEA “a major new commitment of the federal government to quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people.”
He also said of ESEA, “…we rekindle the revolution—the revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance.”
What better way to promote equality and tolerance between races than to rid the country of ignorance? Do we think there is a greater force at work behind the bigotry and racism of then and today other than ignorance?
But the bigger problem with Kosar’s piece is that arguing over whether ESEA was a civil rights law or Secretary King is exceeding his authority misses the point. It’s part of the same conversation that has taken place for decades, all while ignoring what is best for children.
So What Is Right for Children?
Liz King from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights answered the question best: “When is it ever OK to spend less money on the education of poor children than we spend on the education of non-poor children?”
Poor children need more support to succeed, yet they typically do not get their fair share. Spending on education at every level is scattershot and arbitrary. With respect to the spending of federal funds, Title I money is misused in most states.
Secretary King proposes to do something about it. Not content to allow states and districts to continue to ignore the needs of far too many students without fear of ‘federal overreach,’ he’s willing to do everything in his power to live up to a 50-year-old promise to ensure that poor kids are the greatest beneficiaries of federal funds—funds states are free to reject if they feel burdened by the conditions of accepting them.
Whether ESEA was written to protect civil rights or to address poverty is irrelevant. Both are struggles for greater opportunity. Driving toward greater educational equity for all children should be a mandate of the U.S. Department of Education for reasons that go beyond civil rights—moral obligation, economic vitality, national security, and public health, just to name a few.
So let’s have a debate over how ESSA is implemented, but everybody has to come equipped with arguments that first address what’s right for kids. If we stay focused on this, we might arrive at pragmatic solutions to problems we must solve now instead of remaining stuck on pointless arguments from the past.