Education Bills Put Neediest Children at Risk

Education Bills Put Neediest Children at Risk
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Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., right, and the committee's ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, for the committee's hearing looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

RCEd Commentary

Protecting children at risk, and ensuring that all children get a quality education that prepares them for college and careers, has always been at the heart of federal education policy.

We, respectively, oversee the third largest school system in America and run a scholarship foundation that sends more than 10,000 young people of color to college each year. We believe in the power and promise of public education. And our government in Washington should share and uphold that core American conviction.

Lately, however, Republicans in Congress have pushed this shared national goal to the back burner in the service of a false political idea: "Restoring" local control.  To appeal to Tea Party conservatives, they have created a false narrative of a voracious federal government taking education decisions out of the hands of local leaders and putting them the under the thumb of faceless Washington bureaucrats. Don’t believe it.

The fact is, despite 150 years of federal involvement in public education, states remain firmly in control of their learning standards, classroom curriculum, school funding, and all essential elements of schooling. The federal government funds research and a variety of grant programs, but its core job is to foster greater equity in education with funding and oversight to ensure that low-income children, minorities, children with disabilities, and English language learners are protected. Today, however, even that limited federal role is at risk.

The new Congress is moving quickly to rewrite the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind (technically the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act”) so states and districts no longer have to meet ambitious performance targets. GOP leaders want to weaken accountability and eliminate consequences for chronically under-performing schools.

They are eliminating any incentives or rewards for meeting high learning standards and strengthening the field of teaching. And, as if that’s not enough, they are changing the rules around funding for low-income schools, allowing states to transfer billions of dollars from our poorest schools to middle-class communities.

America is already one of the only developed countries in the world that spends less to educate poor children than to educate wealthier children.  Almost every other developed country realizes that it costs more to educate poor kids who do not have the same supports and opportunities as their wealthier peers.

Nevertheless, according to a White House analysis of a proposal in Congress, Los Angeles could lose up to $80 million and Chicago could lose up to $64 million to middle class schools in surrounding high-income communities.

In a society already plagued by staggering economic inequality, allowing states to shift billions in federal dollars away from the poorest kids is indefensible. As it is, we don’t do nearly enough to serve our disadvantaged populations.

Not surprisingly, disadvantaged students score lower on tests, have less access to rigorous curriculum and highly effective teachers, are less likely to finish high school, and far less likely to earn a college degree. As a result, their lifetime earnings are considerably lower and the cost to society is considerably higher.

America has always been the land of opportunity for people willing to work and study hard. But today, in a global, knowledge-based economy, education is more essential than ever to climbing the economic ladder.

At critical points in our history, the federal government has stepped in to pave a path to success that runs right through America’s classrooms. In the 1860s, the federal government helped states create public colleges. After World War II, a grateful nation embraced FDR's GI Bill to send millions of GIs to college.

In the 1950s, the federal government ended institutionalized segregation in schools. In the 1960s, America committed to providing extra funding for low-income K-12 students.  In the 1970s, we did the same for students with disabilities.

In both Democratic and Republican administrations, Congress has funded grants and loans to move our nation closer to the day when any qualified young person who wants to go to college can go to college.

As a result of this national action and commitment, America's high school graduation and college enrollment rates hit all-time highs in recent years, driven largely by increases among minorities.

In Chicago, we’ve boosted the high school graduation rate to nearly 70 percent and we’re on track to meet or beat the national average within four years. At the other end of the grade span, we’ve nearly doubled the percentage of kids in quality pre-school.

For all of our progress, however, we still have far too many underperforming schools and children at risk. Too many young people from low-income backgrounds arrive at college academically unprepared. Too many others can never even afford to attend college. Our cities, our communities, our colleges, and our country cannot afford to squander so much talent.  

America cannot go backwards to a time when educational equity was optional. It's time to put aside the false arguments, ideologies, and political agendas. Local control is not at risk. Our children are.

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