New acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King used his first major speech, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to call for continued attention to educational equity, even as states and school districts prepare for new flexibility on K-12 accountability.
The Every Student Succeeds Act—the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—seeks to restore major control over K-12 to states and place major restrictions on federal power when it comes to standards, testing, accountability and more.
But King said Monday that the federal government retains key authority to ensure equity for all students—and he expects to use it.
“ESSA presents a moment of both opportunity and moral responsibility,” King said in a speech in Washington to the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by Rev. Al Sharpton. “There has been much discussion of the new law placing much of the responsibility for students’ learning on states. ... There is a continued role in the new law for the federal government as a backstop to ensure educational quality for all children, a protector of our students’ civil rights, and I and my colleagues at the [Education] Department take that responsibility very seriously.”
He added that the “new and larger role for states should be seen as a clarion call in the civil rights community.”
The acting secretary, who is half Black and half Puerto Rican and attended K-12 schools in New York, urged civil rights leaders to make their voices heard as states develop new systems for gauging student progress under the new law. He asked them to continue to fight for higher standards, and to give low-income and minority students to their fair share of effective teachers, as well as more wraparound services (such as extended learning time and school-based health clinics.) And he encouraged them to continue to work to end disparities in discipline practices that lead some schools to punish minority students more often or more harshly than others.
Advocates should also push for greater access to early-childhood education, “perhaps the single greatest no-brainer civic investment a community or state can make,” King said.
And King asked advocates to press school districts on integration, an issue on which his predecessor, Arne Duncan, wasn’t as visible as some advocates would have liked.
“Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children—black or white, rich or poor—is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools,” King said. “We should support innovative, voluntary locally-driven efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity in schools.”
And King pressed civil rights advocates to weigh in on some of the weedy—but important—details of ESSA implementation, including advising states on how to incorporate new indicators into their accountability systems.
ESSA calls for states to pick a factor to consider alongside test scores and graduation rates that gets at school quality and students’ opportunity to learn, such as school climate, student engagement, or access to advanced coursework.
That requirement could lead to greater equity of opportunity, including, for example, to more rigorous coursework in schools serving low-income students and minorities, King said, while also issuing a caution.
“The use of these kinds of new indicators of school success has tremendous potential to advance equity, but that will require the vigilance of parents, of educators, and of the civil rights community as each state creates its system of accountability,” King said. “Otherwise, these new indicators could serve to mask some of the equity and achievement gaps we are working so hard to close.”
To underline the imperative for action, King was expected to place ESSA in historical context, noting that the nation has made great strides in equity for all students since original ESEA law was passed in 1965, but still has a long ways to go.
The national graduation rate hit an all-time high of 82 percent for the class of 2014, and gaps are closing between racial minorities, students from low-income families, and their peers, the remarks state, although there needs to be a lot more action before educational opportunity is truly equal.
“In far too many schools, we still offer [some students] less—less access to the best teachers, less access to the most challenging courses, less access to art and music, and less access to the resources necessary to thrive,” King said.
He noted that the most affluent students are about six times more likely to graduate from college than low-income students, for example, and some folks predict a black male is more likely to go to prison than to get a bachelor’s degree.
It seems that civil rights advocates are already poised to take King up on his suggestions. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, for example, is already working to give its coalition members a seat at the table as states develop their accountability plans
It’s unclear how much of King’s role in pushing for equity will come from using the bully pulpit of his office—as he planned to do in the speech—and how much will come from the process of regulating on ESSA and approving state systems.
During a recent public meeting, advocates for state and district K-12 officials urged the department to use a light touch when it comes to regulating on the new law. And it’s unclear how the new restrictions on federal power in ESSA will play out.
But it is clear from the speech where King’s heart is.
“Persistent opportunity gaps undermine equality,” he said. “As [civil rights activist] Julian Bond once said, ‘Violence is black children going to school for 12 years and receiving six years’ of education.’”
File photo of John B. King Jr.