Harkin: Why We Must Move Forward on ESEA Reauthorization

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Nearly 50 years ago, the 89th Congress passed the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The ESEA was one of the great accomplishments of that Congress, providing schools and communities with additional resources specifically targeted to help lift children out of poverty by making a high-quality education accessible to all. Since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the ESEA into law in 1965, each reauthorization of it has sought to enhance the law’s effectiveness while staying true to its original mission: to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which I chair, is charged with an important task: updating this law. This month, the HELP Committee approved the Strengthening America’s Schools ActRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, legislation to renew the ESEA. It would replace the failed tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act—the ESEA’s last iteration—with a fair and flexible system that would ensure accountability and transparency in our nation’s schools. The Strengthening America’s Schools Act, which I introduced, reaffirms our federal commitment to protecting access and equity in public education for every child in America, while removing the burdensome regulations that have made NCLB unworkable for schools and states.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a 2012 file photo.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a 2012 file photo.
—J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is long overdue—NCLB expired in 2007. As a result of congressional delay, 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, have received waivers from NCLB requirements. While these waivers have granted states necessary flexibility, they are no substitute for a new law. In the last Congress, Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to participate in the bipartisan negotiations that allowed the HELP Committee to pass a joint ESEA-reauthorization bill in 2011. Because of this obstructionism, our bipartisan attempt to reauthorize the ESEA failed, forcing us to try again to replace No Child Left Behind.

While the intentions behind NCLB were admirable—holding states accountable for low-performing schools and ensuring that students are making progress to keep them on track to graduate—many agreed that the law was too prescriptive. That’s why our bill, instead of prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions for low-performing schools, would establish a new partnership of shared responsibility that would support state- and locally designed accountability systems—a framework that would build on the progress that states are already making under the waivers. By strengthening the partnership between states and the federal government, we can ensure that states design plans that educate all children to high standards, and we can tackle achievement gaps that leave disadvantaged students less prepared for postsecondary education and careers.

"By strengthening the partnership between states and the federal government, we can ensure that states design plans that educate all children to high standards."

Our bill also asks states to put greater emphasis on early learning, because we know that so many of our children—particularly children from low-income families—fall behind their peers before they even get to kindergarten.

The Strengthening America’s Schools Act would strategically consolidate programs and focus grant funds on a smaller number of programs to allow for greater flexibility. It would support districts, if they chose, to extend the school day and year or to strengthen their literacy, science, math, or technology programs; it would foster safe and healthy conditions for students and allow districts to offer a more well-rounded curriculum that includes the arts and physical education. It would also invest in effective programs to train and support principals and teachers to work in high-need schools, and continue to foster innovation through programs like Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods.

We recognize the central role of parents in this bill. Our inclusion in it of an “equity report card” would allow parents to see what resources are available to a school and what educational opportunities, such as Advanced Placement courses and full-day kindergarten, their children have access to. We recognize that parents are integral partners in their children’s education, and this critical information about school performance will empower them to make the best decisions for their sons and daughters.

We owe it to our kids and our nation to provide states and districts with the certainty, support, and resources they need to make meaningful strides in improving our schools, ensure access to high-quality education, and guarantee opportunities for all of our children. I urge my colleagues in the Senate and the House to make reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a reality.

Vol. 32, Issue 36

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