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To Protect Children at Risk, Washington Must Play a Role

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The history of federal involvement in K-12 education essentially boils down to one core mission: protecting children at risk. If Congress continues on its current path toward reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act when it reconvenes in September, those protections will be weakened, and the inevitable result will be that low-income children, children of color, and students with special needs will lose.

From Brown v. Board of Education to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to No Child Left Behind, Washington’s role has been to counter the worst instincts of states and school districts that often dodge responsibility for educating disadvantaged children.

Many major reforms of the last 60 years were driven in whole, or in part, by the federal government’s efforts to protect children at risk: integration, funding equity, standards, accountability, transparency, and teacher quality.

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Integral to all of those reforms, however, is oversight and accountability. Without some teeth, federal policies are little more than nudges in the right direction.

History suggests that, without federal pressure to be accountable for outcomes, many states and districts will do little or nothing to address inequity. From districts intentionally segregating students by attendance boundaries, to schools that mask achievement gaps by gaming the standards, bad behavior is a fact of life in public education. In these cases, federal oversight is the only antidote.

This in no way diminishes the active, positive role states have played in advancing reform and enjoying extensive flexibility in the education they offer. The school choice movement, for example, has been largely led by states, with only limited federal support.

“History suggests that, without federal pressure to be accountable for outcomes, many states and districts will do little or nothing to address inequity.”

States also created the Common Core State Standards. While it is true that the Obama administration offered incentives for states to adopt the standards, the feds did not write them, approve them, or mandate them.

And it is beyond debate that many successful innovations in education begin at the state and local levels. But, for all the positive outcomes, there are still far too many negative outcomes, from racially unjust disciplinary proceedings to grossly inequitable funding formulas.

Some states also do a much better job than others of serving students at risk. For example, 79 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high schools in Arkansas in 2012, but just 33 percent did so in Louisiana. Eighty-three percent of English-language learners graduated on time in West Virginia, but just 24 percent graduated on time in Arizona.

Worse yet, gaps in student achievement and outcomes remain stubbornly wide. Today, five times as many middle-income students complete college, when compared with low-income students. Raw intelligence is not skewed by income level, so why should outcomes be?

“Raw intelligence is not skewed by income level, so why should outcomes?”

Today, it’s become commonplace to criticize efforts to improve public education, but consider a few facts: High school graduation rates are at an all-time high of 81 percent, and most of the gains are among minorities; college enrollment among minorities is also at an all-time high.

These outcomes didn’t happen despite high standards, accountability, and choice; they happened because of them. Strong federal pressure to improve outcomes creates the political climate states and districts need to take on entrenched interests and make tough choices.

The congressional debate on the ESEA has included talk of “federal overreach,” with a patently false narrative around “a national school board,” and further suggesting that common-core standards are leading to a uniform, national curriculum.

But state control over standards and local control over curriculum remain firmly in place. Our legislative history shows that without federal pressure to keep standards high, states will dumb them down, undercutting efforts to prepare low-income children and minorities for college.

This past school year, for the first time in U.S. history, there were more students of color in our K-12 school system than white students. We are a majority-minority school system, and more than half of public school students now qualify for free or reduced-price meals. And we have an obligation to prepare all of our children to compete in the new global economy. A limited but robust federal role is absolutely critical to that effort.

Leaders at every level—federal, state, local, and community­­­—have a responsibility to speak out and protect students at risk. Now is not the time to retreat. Now is not the time to be silent.

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