Democrats and Republicans agree Congress should reauthorize the outdated Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). However, Senate Republicans, led by Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), introduced a draft reauthorization bill earlier this week—titled “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015”—that would do the opposite. In other words, the needs of the most vulnerable students are least served by Alexander’s bill.
While President Obama pronounced education equality as “the civil rights issue of our time,” Alexander’s proposal turns back the clock and perpetuates existing inequities in education. Here are 5 reasons Alexander’s bill fails disadvantaged students:
- Opens the door to drastic budget cuts: The bill eliminates the “maintenance of effort” (MOE) provision, which requires districts receiving Title I funding—extra money for schools serving low-income students—to maintain state spending on education at roughly the same level as the previous year. The MOE provision is important because it keeps states honest. It ensures that federal dollars intended to better educate poor children are used for that purpose, instead of displacing general revenue.
- Diverts funding away from students who need it most: Alexander’s bill allows states to opt out of the current Title I formula and send money out on the basis of the percentage of poor students. The current formula, while problematic for many reasons, targets Title I funding to schools with concentrations of poor students. Alexander’s proposal would significantly dilute the funding, sending it to schools with higher income populations and limiting the ability of the funds to reach students who need it most.
- Lowers academic standards: After graduating, students will enter a global economy. But will they be prepared to compete? Alexander’s bill requires states to establish a different (read: lower) set of standards for students who aren’t planning to go to college and abolishes the requirement that standards for students who do intend to go to college be internationally benchmarked. By creating a two-track system, Alexander’s bill will limit the life prospects for students living in poverty and in low-income communities. By lowering standards—and allowing states free reign to set them wherever they want—his bill threatens our nation’s future economic competitiveness. A risk that we can’t afford to take when we are 26th in the world in math.
- Rolls back school accountability: What happens when schools are consistently and chronically failing students? According to the Alexander bill, not a whole lot. The bill all but eliminates school accountability. While states must develop an accountability system, there are no requirements for these systems, leaving states free to ignore underperforming students and deny them their best hope of breaking the cycle of poverty and rising to the middle class: a good education.
- Denies parents vital information about student performance: For parents looking to determine where to send their child to school, the Alexander bill takes away one of the most useful sources of data: comparable student achievement results. The bill provides two options for testing—and both options leave parents in the wilderness. The first option allows states total flexibility to decide when and where to assess student progress. The second option retains annual student assessments but allows them to vary by district. This approach would make it difficult, if not impossible, to meaningfully compare student performance across districts. These provisions would also lead to decreased accountability and allow underperforming students to fly under the radar.
Just as important as what is in Senator Alexander’s bill is what is not. We know that the Title I formula is wildly unjust and unequal, providing more than three times as much per pupil spending for poor students in Wyoming than in neighboring Utah, for example. Yet Alexander’s proposal does nothing to more fairly allocate limited federal funds, leaving the overly complex and not well-targeted formulas in place. We also know that high-quality early childhood education is one of the greatest resources for improving long-term outcomes for children living in poverty. Quality early childhood programs have been linked with improvements in employment rates and earnings, reduced dependency on public assistance and crime, and even elevated family well-being. Yet Senator Alexander failed to provide any additional investments in early childhood.
So, how could we improve Sen. Alexander’s ESEA reauthorization bill? To start, an effective reauthorization must include college-and career-ready standards, statewide annual assessments that lead to better, fairer and fewer tests, meaningful statewide accountability systems, measures that make funding practices fair and efficient, and a substantial investment in high-quality early childhood education. These provisions will help ensure that all students have an opportunity for success.