Commentary

Trump Is Undermining Students' Civil Rights. Let's Fight Back

Why you should pay attention to a recent change to ESSA regulations

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With headlines from Washington dominated by health care and Trump administration controversies, an education resolution already signed by the president has not received the attention it is due. More than three months ago, President Donald Trump signed House Joint Resolution 57, gutting important accountability regulations issued by the Obama administration to protect students’ civil rights under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law reauthorized with the passage of ESSA, has been around since 1965. It is a civil rights law, enacted to encourage states to increase educational opportunities for students of color. The law was an important part of the federal government’s attempt to force states to abandon the “separate but equal” school systems that were banned by the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Congress recently rolled back civil rights protections under ESSA, and people need to pay more attention, writes Adam Fernandez.
—Getty

When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was drafted more than 50 years ago, a majority of students in the nation’s public schools were white, and the law was set up to protect students in the minority. Today, however, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, students of color represent more than half of K-12 public school enrollment nationwide.

Implicit in the bipartisan passage of ESSA in 2015 was a compromise between the parties: Republicans would get a loosening of the rigid federal control contained in the law’s previous version, the No Child Left Behind Act, and Democrats would get a commitment to protecting the rights of children of color.

The rollback of Obama-era accountability rules betrayed that compromise and was passed along partisan lines (no Democrat in either the House or the Senate voted in favor of the resolution). Trump and the congressional Republicans chose to show again that they dogmatically prioritize states’ rights and deregulation over the rights of students of color.

The protections they revoked were an effort of the Obama administration to implement the provisions of ESSA that ensure schools, districts, and states have an incentive not only to continually improve the performance of their students as a whole, but also to require “subgroups” to continue to improve as well: Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and the economically disadvantaged.

When signing House Joint Resolution 57, Trump said that removing those protections would “encourage more freedom” and remove “harmful burdens on state and local taxes on school systems.” In blocking those protections, Trump attempted to give states the “freedom” to disregard the educational needs of their students of color. Instead of expanding educational opportunities, Trump and the majorities in the House and the Senate have chosen to start down the dangerous road of returning America to a system of separate and unequal schools.

"We must challenge our state leaders to ensure all children have the resources they need to receive a quality education."

The confusion and chaos they have created on the state and local levels by passing the resolution could lead some states to believe they succeeded in removing all of the rules that protect children of color within ESSA. They did not. Despite their efforts, many civil rights protections for children in schools remain within ESSA, and elsewhere within civil rights law.

As parents, students, teachers, activists, and attorneys, we must work together to resist efforts to dismantle the public education system and to further weaken the civil rights laws intended to protect our nation’s children. We must challenge our state leaders to ensure all children have the resources they need to receive a quality education and are provided the full opportunity to succeed to their greatest potential. We must insist that local school boards work to improve poorly performing schools, especially where there are major performance gaps between schools or between student groups within the same district. We must also insist that schools have the same equal and high standards for all of their students, regardless of their race, economic status, gender, English proficiency, disability status, foster-care status, or housing situation. And if one of those groups is left behind, we must actively work to help those students succeed.

The future is up to us. If there is one thing we should learn from campaigns like the women’s marches across the country and the flood of telephone calls placed during the nomination process for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (who then became the first Cabinet official in history to require a tie-breaking vote from the vice president for confirmation), it is that our elected officials can and will be motivated by the passion of their constituents.

So call your members of Congress. Reach out to education leaders in your state. Tell them that educating America’s new demographic majority of children of color is more than a moral duty—it is vital to training a 21st-century workforce and ensuring the economic and social health of our nation. Let them know we will fight against any policy that will create an apartheid nation where the diverse demographic majority is segregated by both race and education. Let’s get out there and show them what kind of America we can and must be, for the future of our children and for the future of America.

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