A Senate hearing today on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) featured impassioned pleas from parents and civil rights groups, who want to preserve the federal government’s role in monitoring the annual progress of our nation’s most vulnerable groups of students.
They called on legislators to preserve the requirement to test students annually on math and reading in grades three through eight and at least once in high school.
As one Minnesota parent, Khulia Pringle, who attended the hearing today, said: “To me, it’s like a life-or-death situation. Without those tests, I wouldn’t know. And if I don’t know, then I can’t help.”
One veteran civil rights leader who testified at the hearing offered sharp criticism of the failure of states to fix systemic inequities in schools.
Wade Henderson, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights warned the Senate of the implications that decreased federal oversight of state school districts would have on disadvantaged children:
When states are given the kind of deference and the kind of latitude that they have, you see a weakening of standards, you see a failure to invest in communities most in need, you see a reinforcement of existing inequities of how schools are funded, and there is no way of reacting to those problems…unless the federal government steps in.
As Congress decides whether to reauthorize ESEA, a din has surrounded its requirements on annual testing, where stories of over-testing and test-prep at the local level are conflated with federal requirements. These stories are overshadowing the original promise and purpose of ESEA.
As Pringle and Henderson affirm, we need annual testing to tell us which students are struggling or succeeding, which schools are showing growth or falling behind, and where the government needs to invest in supports and programs.
ESEA has long been a force for parity. As the events of the past year have demonstrated, through the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act or the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we cannot afford to be complacent on the subject of civil rights. These protections are far from guaranteed.
More Voices for Civil Rights
In addition to Henderson, other civil rights leaders have sounded the alarm on the importance of maintaining the strength of federal involvement in holding states and schools accountable.
Marc Morial, chief executive of the National Urban League, writes of how ESEA has moved civil rights forward in The Huffington Post:
It’s time for Washington to make good on ESEA’s promise to public education. Because we have not achieved resource equity in this nation, some of our children—particularly children of color—have been systematically less prepared.
The original intent of ESEA is to level the playing field for disadvantaged students by providing additional funds and supports to their schools. We must stay true to the spirit of this law and provide adequate resources to help students and schools rise to challenges of the 21st century.
Morial’s organization is one of 20 civil rights groups calling for the reauthorization of ESEA. They outline six principles they would like to part of the law’s renewal, including a special focus on helping needy students and involving parents in decision making at their local schools.
As much as opponents would like to paint the law as wresting control away from states and local school districts, these civil rights groups agree it ensures that historically disadvantaged families have a say in what happens at their schools:
The United States has played a historic and critical role in promoting educational opportunity and protecting the rights and interests of students disadvantaged by discrimination, poverty, and other conditions that may limit their educational attainment…Much progress has been made, but educational inequality continues to quash dreams, erode our democracy, and hinder economic growth.