Letter on ESEA and the Federal Role in Education
May 19, 2011
This week, our nation commemorates the 57th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. This month, we also remember the freedom riders, who, 50 years ago, risked their lives to fight for equality and justice. As we reflect on these historic events and their meaning for our nation today, we would also like to take the opportunity to reflect on the federal role in ensuring equal educational opportunity for all — the progress we have seen and the considerable challenges still ahead. We believe this perspective is critical as Congress begins to consider reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
The public education system is critical to democracy and the cornerstone of our republic. It is the gateway to opportunity and is vital to building respect for the worth, dignity, and equality of every individual in our diverse society. Public education provides individuals with the skills to be involved, informed, and engaged in our representative democracy.
Our nation’s history is one in which the rule of law affirmatively prevented many children from receiving a quality education, banishing them to separate and unequal schools and a lifetime of lost opportunities. Even after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, massive educational disparities remained, with many states failing to ensure adequate resources and supports.
Much of the modern federal role in education was born out of these disparities and intended to ensure that all students had access to the education necessary to succeed. The federal government recognized that addressing educational inequalities in a coordinated approach was essential to promote democracy, ensure equality of educational opportunity, and enhance national competitiveness. Programs like Title I were conceived to level the playing field and target resources to those areas and students who, simply by virtue of where they lived, were starting out far behind their peers in more affluent areas and were essentially doomed never to catch up.
Title I and other federal programs have made a significant difference in addressing gaps in educational access and opportunity. However, many challenges remain as far too many students’ success in school continues to depend in large part on the zip code where they live. Today, students who struggle the most in impoverished communities too often don’t attend safe schools with reliable heat and air conditioning; do not have safe passage to and from school; and do not have access to great teachers on a regular and consistent basis.
Given these challenges, we are very concerned that Congress is headed in a direction contrary to the core values on which ESEA was built. States and school districts are being asked to do more with considerably fewer federal resources while proven federal programs designed to fill specific gaps are being slated for elimination.
As Congress reauthorizes ESEA, we urge you to look back — to remember the days before ESEA when generations of children were denied the basic educational opportunities they deserved. We urge you to judge proposals on whether they will strengthen our educational system, or whether they will move us backward to those unforgiveable days. And, we urge you to look forward — to consider the needs of our nation in the 21st century and to judge all proposals on whether they will help us build a competitive workforce and strong democracy.
We have attached for your information and use a series of one-pagers that outline NEA’s key priorities for ESEA reauthorization: preparing all students to thrive in college, careers, and life; supporting great teachers and education support professionals; and ensuring equitable and safe schools for every student.
President John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. Our requirements for world leadership, our hopes for economic growth, and the demands of citizenship itself in an era such as this all require the maximum development of every young American’s capacity. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” This still holds true today. As our nation continues to struggle in these volatile times, we look forward to working with you to ensure the world-class public education that every child deserves and that our nation needs.
Director of Government Relations
Manager of Federal Advocacy