A Bipartisan Proposal to Fix No Child Left Behind: A Good First Step; Further to Go

Earlier this week, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate education committee, announced an agreement to begin a bipartisan process of fixing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The committee will consider the proposed bill next week. This agreement, however, is just a beginning. As I detailed in a speech yesterday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., there is work ahead to deliver a bill that fulfills the historic mission of this law.

Congress originally passed ESEA 50 years ago this week. Then as now, it stood to connect civil rights to education, enshrining America’s core value that every child deserves a quality education, no matter her race, disability, neighborhood, or first language. I am happy to see this bipartisan effort come together, yet I also know the distance we have to go toward a bill that establishes an expectation of excellence for all American children, and stays true to ESEA’s role as a guarantor of civil rights.

ESEA must continue this nation’s vital progress in closing gaps for vulnerable students. In that effort, there is more yet to do.

Positive Steps

The Alexander-Murray proposal moves reauthorization forward in important ways, including requiring States to adopt college- and career-ready standards as part of the effort to ensure that all students are prepared for the demands of higher education and the workforce. It also would require that states set achievement goals and graduation rate goals for all students and student subgroups. And, the proposal would provide more flexibility than NCLB for states and school districts, and ensure that parents know how their children and children’s school are doing by keeping requirements for annual statewide assessments.

The bipartisan agreement also provides improved support for educators, especially for principals and teachers. And it takes steps in the right direction by promoting transparency on resource inequities and rejecting earlier proposals to allow resources to be siphoned away from our neediest schools.

Further to Go

Yet there are areas where this bill doesn’t do enough to support the learning of students throughout this country. As the bill progresses, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that a final bill will do more to maintain the crucial federal role in protecting our country’s most vulnerable students. The goal is not just to identify a problem, but to do something about it.

A good bill must expand access to high-quality preschool, to give children a chance to get off to a strong start in life.

A good bill must ensure that schools and educators have the resources and funds they need to do their jobs – and that schools with high proportions of low-income and minority students receive their fair share of those resources.

A good bill must ensure meaningful accountability, and support for action, in any school where subgroups or the whole school are persistently underperforming.

A good bill must ensure bolder action and focused resources for the lowest-performing five percent of schools, including America’s lowest-performing high schools.

A good bill must ensure strong support for innovations by local educators that change outcomes for students.

And a good bill needs to close a long-standing loophole in federal law that undermines the ability of Title I funds to provide supplemental resources for schools serving high concentrations of students from low-income families, and allows local funding inequities to continue.

Photo of Star

Star Brown

Yesterday, at the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., I had the great opportunity to share the story of four-year-old Star Brown from Minneapolis. In her short life, she and her family have faced enormous challenges, and she could easily have ended up behind, before she ever started school.

With the help of teachers at the Northside Achievement Zone, however, Star is overcoming her challenges and is on track to start kindergarten next year. Her story is one of opportunity made real.

It’s easy to say that every child deserves opportunity—regardless of race, disability, zip code or family income. And it’s easy to say that we expect excellence from all our children. But it takes work to make opportunity real. Star, and the millions more students like her, deserve all the support and opportunity this country has to offer. Our work is to make sure that opportunity is not just a possibility, but a promise. Now is not the time to turn back the clock.

 Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education