A little history: LBJ signed ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) into law back in 1965 as a Great Society civil rights act, one that aimed to ensure equal rights in education. The original law offered federal grants for impoverished districts and children and gave money to the states to improve educational quality. It provided a large infusion of federal dollars into what had been a state- and locally-funded arena. The original law gave us Title I through Title VI; later amendments added funds for "handicapped children" and for bilingual education.
And for the first two decades of the ESEA, we saw progress in shrinking the achievement gap, especially between African-American and white students. But as other pieces of the Great Society came undone, so did the ESEA. The Reagan Administration took away some of the regulations in Title I in an attempt to move control back to states and localities. The Clinton administration's 1994 Improving America's Schools Act was a critical reauthorization of ESEA, because it merged the new standards-based reforms with federal funding. Now states had to prove that their schools were improving overall, based on those schools' meeting rigorous state standards. Accountability was now built into the system. States had to develop state assessments, measure progress, and report it publicly.
It wasn't much of a leap to the dreaded No Child Left Behind reauthorization of 2002. It's worth remembering that both George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy promoted this bill, for very different reasons. Again, accountability was key; the NCLB called for annual testing and AYP, annual yearly progress, that measured schools against each other and against the state-designed yardstick. Now schools that did not meet standards were punished by being labeled "failing." At the same time, resources were drying up at the state level, and the federal support was not adequate to help schools meet the goals. Even educators who had strongly supported ESEA now turned against it.
Many other things occurred in the 1990s and 2000s that slowed the progress that had been made post-ESEA. Head Start came under fire, and much of its funding went away. Desegregation efforts ground to a halt. The nation stopped thinking that giving money to poor people was a good thing, and we saw the final death throes of the War on Poverty. But it's the focus on accountability that probably changed ESEA in the public eye from a civil rights act into a punitive unfunded mandate.
To see the tension in living color, all you have to do is to look at the polar-opposite reactions of the NEA, our largest teacher's union, and the Leadership Conference, our biggest lobbying group for civil rights, to the Senate's new proposal for ESEA reauthorization. The new legislation is titled "Every Child Achieves." It gets rid of AYP. It sets a cap on test time. It funds community schools—schools that act as a central clearinghouse for social services as well as education of children. It allows states to design their own accountability systems that involve more than just testing. The NEA is all for it.
Yet by moving away from federal oversight, the ECAA opens us up again to civil rights violations, and that's where the Leadership Conference gets up in arms. "We do not have confidence that the law would be faithfully implemented or that the interests of our nation’s most vulnerable students would be protected," says the conference. "The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students."
The Leadership Conference remembers, as few do, the original purpose of ESEA. It was not supposed to be about punishing teachers or schools but about providing equal opportunities. For a while, it seemed to work; then new philosophies and priorities took over, and the achievements of the '70s stalled. The new ECAA moves so far away from the goal and so far back into local control and options that I tend to agree with the Conference: It runs the risk of codifying "a system of achievement gaps and opportunity gaps, with no one to answer for them but the affected students, their families, and communities."