By Wade Henderson (President and CEO/The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights)
In late March, President Trump signed a resolution to invalidate a regulation designed to help implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This move will create tremendous confusion among states that are currently in the middle of putting the new law in place in time for the 2017-2018 school year.
Even more egregious is that congressional Republicans attempted to rewrite or ignore the intention, history and plain text of the law to eliminate the rule.
The 2015 passage of ESSA was a rare recent example of successful bipartisan policymaking. The legislation both reauthorized the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and reinforced ESEA’s core principles to ensure schools have the resources they need to teach all children well, particularly Black children and other children who’ve been neglected for too long, and give them the opportunity to succeed.
Now that the rule is gone, it’s essential that the civil rights legacy and legislative intent behind ESSA and the original ESEA not be obscured and that states recognize in developing their state accountability plans that they are still bound by the provisions of the law designed to ensure all children have equal educational opportunity.
ESEA is—and always has been—a civil rights law. It was a central plank in the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty” and one of a long string of legislative successes emanating from the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s. The legislation provided federal funds to help educate low-income children and recognized that the federal government has an important role in the educational success of every American child, no matter where they lived, how much money their parents had, or what they looked like.
Honoring this civil rights legacy, legislators ensured in 2015 that the ESSA reaffirmed that the federal government has an essential and irreplaceable role in enforcing civil rights laws and holding states and districts accountable if schools are not educating all children well.
One only has to reflect on the long history of state and local decisions shortchanging vulnerable students to understand why the federal role is essential for historically marginalized students, including the children of color who now comprise a majority of K-12 students in America’s public school classrooms.
Children facing the greatest barriers to their success like Black children and children from low-income communities need and deserve schools that educate “all” children well. They also deserve to know that the federal government will still hold states and school districts responsible if schools are not doing well or need help to improve.
And yet Republicans, in their zeal to rewrite ESSA’s legislative history, have been claiming that states would have carte blanche to ignore the students who’ve been deprived for far too long and sweep problems in schools under the rug now that the rule is gone. And that has led to more confusion and uncertainty for states who are in the middle of drafting their accountability plans, attempting to comply with the law, and deciding how best to support their students.
But make no mistake, ESSA—and its requirements for states—are still on the books and it’s important for our children’s future that states understand their responsibilities under the law.
Given our nation’s history, asking states to faithfully implement the law and meet their legal obligations to historically marginalized groups of children, while refusing to provide sufficient federal guidance and oversight, is a recipe for failure. No matter what Republicans say, Congress knew this and that’s why provisions that were in the law since 1965 remained, which is ultimately why the civil rights community supported the final law.
The state accountability plans are, at their core, a declaration of a state’s commitment to the education of all of their children. It’s the one place where parents and families can see what their state expects of schools – and what they plan to do when schools need more help doing their job well. The federal government’s role in helping to ensure these plans put the needs of children first is essential.
Every child in every school in every community across America deserves an education that equips them with the skills they need to forge a bright future. But ESSA’s success depends on states doing the right thing and the U.S. Department of Education holding them accountable when they fail to do so.
Overturning the regulation didn’t change this fundamental dynamic.
Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund.