Opportunity Is Not Optional: Secretary Duncan’s Vision for America’s Landmark Education Law

Secretary Duncan laid out a bold vision for the ESEA that continues a focus on the nation’s most vulnerable students. (Photo credit: Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Duncan laid out a bold vision for the ESEA that continues a focus on the nation’s most vulnerable students. (Photo credit: Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Arne Duncan laid out a sweeping vision for the nation’s landmark education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in a speech today at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. On the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the ESEA bill, he called for a new law that will work to ensure strong opportunities for all students, and protect the most vulnerable.

In his speech, Duncan said that as the country moves away from No Child Left Behind—the latest version of ESEA—Congress faces a choice of whether to take a path that moves towards President Johnson’s promise of equity, or a path that walks away from it. He said:

Let’s choose the path that makes good on the original promise of this law. Let’s choose the path that says that we, as a nation, are serious about real opportunity for every single child.

I believe we can work together – Republicans and Democrats – to move beyond the out-of-date, and tired, and prescriptive No Child Left Behind law.

I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support – and more money, more resources – than they receive today.

A law that recognizes that no family should be denied preschool for their children, and reflects the real scientific understanding that learning begins at birth, not somehow at age 5.

A law that recognizes the critically hard, important work educators across America are doing to support and raise expectations for our children, and lifts up the profession of teaching by recognizing that teachers need better preparation, better support, and more resources to do their hugely important job.

A law that says that educational opportunity isn’t an option, it’s a civil right, a moral imperative, and the best way we can strengthen our nation and attract and retain great jobs that expand the middle class.

Duncan pointed to the progress our country has made, but warned that, “we cannot allow ourselves to believe we are yet doing justice by all of our young people.”

Not when other countries are leaping ahead of us in preparing their children both for college and the world of work. We’re not there yet when millions of children start kindergarten already too far behind simply because their parents couldn’t afford preschool.

Not when thousands of preschoolers are being suspended. And sadly, we know exactly who many of the 3- and 4-year olds often are – our young boys of color.

Not when a third of black students attend high schools that don’t even offer calculus.

Not when across the nation, far too many students of all races and all backgrounds take, and pass the required classes for high school graduation – and are still not qualified to go on to public university and take real college-level classes.

Collectively, we owe our children, and our nation, something so much better.

In laying out the path forward, Secretary Duncan said that reauthorization must be one that expands opportunity for every child, “strengthens our nation economically, improves resources for schools, and supports and helps to modernize the teaching profession.”

“This country can’t afford to replace ‘The fierce urgency of now’ with the soft bigotry of ‘It’s optional.'”

Duncan made clear what a “responsible reauthorization” of ESEA must accomplish, including ensuring every child receives an education that sets him or her up for success in college, careers and life. He said that every child deserves the opportunity for a strong start through high-quality preschool, and that education that includes arts, history, foreign languages, and advanced math and science is essential, not a luxury.

ESEA must also give schools and teachers the resources they need to help students achieve, including teacher pay that reflects the importance of the work they do—regardless of the tax base of their community. Secretary Duncan also spoke to excessive testing, stating that parents, teachers, and students should be able to know what progress students are making, but that tests—and preparation for them—shouldn’t take up too much time away from instruction. “I believe we need to take action to support a better balance,” Duncan said.

Read all of the details of Secretary Duncan’s plan for a responsible reauthorization.

Duncan made clear that he believes that schools and teachers need more resources to do their vital work, and made clear that he believes that schools and teachers need greater resources and funds to do their vital work, and announced that President Obama will seek an increase of $2.7 billion in ESEA funding in his 2016 budget request.

Secretary Duncan concluded his speech by warning that we must not turn back the clock on education progress:

The moral and economic consequences of turning back the clock are simply unacceptable.

We would be accepting the morally and economically unsupportable notion that we have some kids to spare. We don’t.

And while there is much to debate in reauthorizing ESEA, Duncan noted there are areas for productive compromise, and that traditionally, education has been, and must continue to be, a bipartisan cause.

We are at an educational crossroads in America, with two distinct paths for moving forward.

This choice, this crossroads, has profound moral and economic consequences.

In making choices for our children’s future, we will decide who we are as a nation.

For the sake of our children, our communities, and our country, let’s make the right choice.



  1. I am in total agreement with Secretary Duncan’s vision and corresponding efforts to impact our students’ education and accessibility to same. And, as an immigrant to this great country, I am grateful for the educational opportunities that have been available to me and my family. Here is my dilemma, I currently hold an M.A. in Education, a B.S. in Business Administration, Teacher Certification from the NJ DoE, Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, I am bilingual (Spanish), and I have six plus years teaching experience yet I can’t find a job. We all want to be part of the solution, but we need to be included in the process. Any suggestions on what else I can do to secure a job in the education field will be greatly appreciated. Regards, Maria L.

  2. Fully fund IDEA and strengthen the enforcement measures to ensure state and district compliance, we put more in making sure they comply with conference regulations for sports teams which are extracurricular and non-academic than we do in making sure educators and administrators KNOW and UNDERSTAND the laws concerning Special Education. Let teachers teach and administrators administer, teachers should not have to prove they are in compliance, they should be working on teaching children how to think and process information, computational math skills, how to read, write-including cursive, scientific foundations and discoveries and methods, and a true, non-propaganda, patriotic, American-exceptionalism American history,
    Reduce testing to weekly subject matter testing for core subjects through 8th grade, mid-term and final exams for core subjects for 9th through 12th, give control over methodologies and curriculum to the state and even down to the district level, cut out pacing guides and allow students to be taught to proficiency and not to a deadline. Or just leave IDEA, ESEA, ADA as stand alone legislation and abolish the USDoEd and give all it’s funding back to the states proportionally and let them put it to good use instead of wasting it….

  3. It’s clear after 13 years that NCLB has failed, that standardized testing has not benefited kids, but has enriched private contractors and emboldened anti-union forces (such as ALEC, the Waltons and Kochs to name but a few).

    So we need less measuring and more learning, and we need support for the out-of-school problems being brought into classrooms to slow everybody down. We also need to look at charter schools long-term and macro instead of focusing on a few cherrypicked students they help, they are diluting public schools and robbing resources for the many.

    It’s also time to detach Common Core from Race to the Top requirements to use test scores in teacher evaluations. There is no way to tell who taught a kid what, and there is a 25% of guessing correct answers anyway. So the USDOE doesn’t care about scientific accuracy, but it gets even more absurd when we discover MOST teachers in districts like NYC have Math or ELA scores used in their evaluations – even though they don’t teach either subject.

    It’s time to get serious and throw out the junk science of VAM and APPR, throw out the third party profiteers like Pearson, and use the limited education resources we have on increasing learning in school. The testing has been killing morale of students, parents and educators but only Bill Gates and astroturf think tanks like StudentsFirst are being heard.

    • I do agree that the state testing does hurt the moral of the students! And this new Core Standards are horible! They dont teach the kids like I use to learn! They have taken all the subject matter out of social studies that made it interesting and it is now the most boring subject ever! The math that is being teached by many of the publications available doent enforce the learning by doing any repetition on the subject matter taught! And English no longer focuses on Phonics! Thats why so many childrwn are graduating illiterate! 90% of the graduating class in the Los Angeles School district cant read or write! I know several teenagers attending those schools that can not pivk up a book and read it! Let alone spell anything correct! They no longer teach Vocabulary in these schools either! At least not the way it needs to be taught! These educators need to have companies redo their books to better focus on the important areas like they did when i grew up! Education is a joke in America! Especially compared to the as everyone says Third world countries that actually teach important stuff and whos students graduate at 8th grade smarter than Americas High School students!

  4. When it’s come down to education is not a matter of politic nor propaganda but a human right. Here in America everyday someone drop out of high-school, college medical school etc because of finance or stability. From no child left behind act of 1964, our leader are make sure everyone regardless of your gender, color or ethnicity to receive an equal opportunity. AS we know by 2020 America goal is to have the nation educated up 95 percent just like Europe let’s push our children to school so their could received the proper education that way our crime rate could be decrease.Lets take for instance Luck Benny Toussaint a graduated nursing student in the Emergency room with a salary of 90 thousand a year you really think he is going to look for gang trouble, not sure.

  5. I do not disagree with Secretary Duncan; however, a longer school day is NOT THE ANSWER, A SHORTER DAY IN THE CLASSROOM WITH MORE “FIELD TRIPS” drives the student engagement and further inquiry. Why not teach 2 academic classes (i.e., English and Math) and 2 arts (i.e., music and art) intensively in a semester versus 4 or 5 academics? Educators could collaborate, and the research, literacy would cross the curricula). I believe we would have better students, because they would be introduced to things that they may not be aware, i.e., art museums, national/state monuments, historical places, music etc. They would come to school for4 hours and 40 minutes. 4 hours of academics/arts and 40 minutes breakfast/lunch (20 min each). Educators would have 2 hours to work together and plan, really plan and be able to accomplish the rigorous teaching that we desire to do. This would also allow us to not have to take work home, but use our home time for our families. The divorce rate among educators will go down. Finland, Hong Kong, and South Korea all reduced school time, and students became better and more engaged. Why don’t we copy some of the things that work, instead of reinventing the wheel? Thanks for listening. By the way, I am an educator.

    • In Rocklin Unified School District in Rocklin, CA, our Strategic Planning committee mirrors what Vernice Taylor has outlined. Excellence with rigor in ALL subjects coalesing ARTS integration is paramount to our successful outcomes, thus far. We are an A+ district in the Sacramento region. We must never lose the understanding nor the vision that ‘design’ is an inherent attribute of our brain’s modality. I believe that our twenty six years of maintaining our arts, music and physical education programs in spite of ‘cuts’ is evidence over the long haul.

  6. It is clear that equity of opportunity is fundamental to enabling civil rights. What continues to be missing in discussions of ESEA reauthorization is an agenda to
    transform student and learning supports. Such a transformation is fundamental to enabling equity of opportunity. Such a transformation is essential to addressing barriers to learning and teaching, re-engaging disconnected students, promoting whole child development, and enhancing school climate.

  7. Secretary Duncan is right when he says that “other countries are leaping ahead of us in preparing their children both for college and the world of work.” This must change, and Democrats should be supporting the development of new qualifications to replace the high school diploma of the 20th century. Those intending to attend college need to prepare earlier and to a more rigourous level than most American high school pupils are at present, while those wanting to proceed directly into the workplace need more specific qualifications than the general education the high school diploma represents.

  8. High school preparation for community college and universities is not working. Community colleges are not working.

    If community colleges are to be successful, they must change their rigid policy of only hiring academics with Master’s Degrees. There are many very talented, experienced people who hold only Bachelor’s Degrees and they are blocked by extremely rigid policies demanding a minimum of 18 graduate credits.

    University professors complain that students do fairly well in academic subjects but are a dismal failure when they go into the laboratory. They never learned the hands on skills that many working people holding Bachelor’s Degrees have already acquired and mastered.

  9. I have been an educator for over 20 years and look forward to the continuous innovative means of strengthening education for our students. I would like for Secretary Duncan’s team to please consider support in rethinking what the “work” day is for educators. We are still living in the past when we have teachers that work a minimal day without ample time to do the critical work that needs to be done to educate our children. We need to “pilot” states that will increase the workday (with pay) so that collaborative work can take place to have PLC time to critically use data to develop educational plans for each and every child. This will guarantee that ALL students are being educated. This plan needs to occur from birth through high school.

    Please consider!

  10. Well spoken; however i can not express enough the need to include Early Childhood Education more in the process.

  11. Secretary Duncan is now fighting for the children of all races all over the United States, and thinking about how their future shall be and showing that if they don’t get education now how shall their future be. The children’s future need more education to expand economically. The children of the Democrats, Republicans, lawyers, scientists, workers, Whites, African Americans, Hawaiians, Indians are children of the United States. Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama say; they need a law that says that educational opportunity isn’t an option, a civil right, a moral imperative. 2015 is the children’s year; no education then there’s no success on industry, commerce, agriculture, economics, engineering etc. We must fight for the children’s education because that’s all they have for their future.

  12. I am a teacher in public school and have been doing this job for 40 years and still look forward to coming to work each day. I agree with all of Secretary Duncan’s comments. I teach the at risk as well as the gifted and see clearly the disparity that exists between these two groups. I also see the need for smaller class size, but that cannot happen because it costs money. I see the need for more staff to help these students, but that cannot happen because it costs money. I see the need for more books these at risks students can read, but they cost too much money. I see dedicated teachers leaving the field because they cannot afford to stay in the profession. I work with teachers who because of the low salary qualify for food stamps and that is not right. Our state government cannot continue to rely mainly on real estate taxes to fund our schools, the tax base is just not there. Our federal government needs to put the money into education to equalize the disparity that now exists in counties today. It is not fair to our students. We need help!

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