Every Student Succeeds Act Opinion

The ESEA: A Pivotal Civil Rights Milestone

By Sherrilyn Ifill — May 11, 2015 4 min read
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This year, we are commemorating significant milestones in our civil rights history, including the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the 61st anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law.

Although the ESEA is not often mentioned in the context of these other civil rights milestones, I believe that it is very much a pivotal piece of civil rights legislation: It opened doors to educational opportunities for many low-income students who had been relegated to substandard education. In fact, I echo the sentiments of our country’s first lady and others who have called education the civil rights issue of our time.

But what will we say about the ESEA another 50 years from now? Will we say that we acted, during the reauthorization of this landmark legislation, to ensure that we fulfilled its original promise to provide all children with quality educational opportunities?


As President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law in 1965, the federal government assumed the role of holding states accountable for providing equal access to quality educational opportunities for all students, regardless of income level. It is indisputable that quality education opens opportunities, including access to high-wage employment and economic security. Today, the bill that President Johnson believed would be a weapon in the “war on poverty” is threatened with erosion in our current Congress.

Political gamesmanship and calls for a small federal government and state autonomy have triggered collective amnesia of what our public school system looked like when the ESEA was first signed into law. More than a decade before the ESEA’s passage, a sophomore at Moton High School in Virginia, Barbara Rose Johns, led a student walkout in protest of the deplorable conditions at the majority-African-American school, including the lack of a gymnasium, a cafeteria, heat, and even desks. That walkout resulted in the filing of the court case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which would later be consolidated with four other cases to become Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated racial apartheid and the doctrine of “separate but equal” in our nation’s public schools. On May 17, we commemorate the 61st anniversary of this landmark decision.

Political gamesmanship and calls for small federal government and state autonomy have triggered collective amnesia of what our public school system looked like when the ESEA was first signed into law.”

Certainly, the passage of the ESEA has not been a panacea—inequities like academic-achievement gaps and high dropout rates for poor and minority students persist. However, these disparities signal that we must move forward, not backward, in ensuring that all students have access to high-quality education. The Every Child Achieves Act, which unanimously passed out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in April, does not include the federal accountability so critical to holding states accountable for identifying and addressing educational disparities. We must retain the federal mechanism through which we can strengthen supports and services to states to ensure that they provide all public school students with the opportunity to learn and thrive in nondiscriminatory educational environments.

Most agree that the most recent iteration of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, which technically expired in 2007, was deeply flawed. The law’s punitive sanctions did more to undermine achievement than promote it. We know that schools and administrators need support, not sanctions, in order to improve outcomes. That is why it is even more imperative that we get it right this time.

We need a reauthorization bill that ensures that students are not subjected to inequities such as being disproportionately taught by underqualified and inexperienced teachers, or being subjected to discriminatory discipline practices and pushed out of school for minor infractions. All students deserve access to rigorous coursework that will enable them to graduate college- and career-ready, and to compete in a global marketplace. We must also promote diversity and equity in our public schools. So, too, must we recognize that quality early-childhood education helps all students start elementary school on a more even footing and should be a component of the federal education law.

Finally, we cannot afford to dilute critical funding intended to support districts serving high proportions of low-income students. Federal support for low-income districts is critical to ensuring that students who live in areas of concentrated poverty receive the services and programming necessary to help mitigate the impact of concentrated poverty and improve achievement.

I urge the full Senate, as it considers the Every Child Achieves Act and amendments to the bill, to retain the critical federal role and the authority of the U.S. secretary of education to hold states accountable for providing high-quality education on an equitable basis. This role must not be diminished, diluted, or compromised in any ESEA reauthorization. We have to remain vigilant to make sure that Congress passes a bill that does not renege on the law’s original promise of equal access to educational opportunity.

Fifty years from now, we want to look back and be able to say that we did the right thing for children.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as The ESEA: A Civil Rights Milestone


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