Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

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Yesterday, joined by civil rights leaders, students, and educators, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), at the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

In a speech, followed by a question and answer, Duncan discussed the education progress that America has seen in the past half-century and the work still ahead in closing achievement gaps – including the need for Congress to reauthorize a strong ESEA–also known as No Child Left Behind.

ESEA marked an extraordinary step for education, and for civil rights. The fight for educational opportunity and the fight for civil rights always have been and always will be inextricably linked.

ESEA has built a foundation under our nation’s schools, helping to raise the bar for every child, and to ensure that the resources are there for those most in need. It’s helped create an expectation that no matter where you live in this country, when students aren’t making progress, local leaders will come together to make change—especially if they are students with disabilities, students who are still learning English, students from a particular racial group, students who live in poverty, or students coming from particular school.

But Duncan said that there is still work to go:

“Our work will not be done until we ensure that opportunity is not just a possibility, but a promise.”

Duncan told the audience that teachers and principals know that ESEA is long overdue for repairs, and what needs to be done to fix the bill.

It is broken and it is wildly out of date. We need a new law that does a lot more to support innovation and creativity by educators and communities—and a lot less to stifle that creativity.

A new law must stay true to the vision that opportunity isn’t somehow optional; it’s a right—for every child in this country. We cannot afford to leave any of our talent on the sidelines.

Opportunity is a right that inspires teachers and principals to literally dedicate their lives to empowering our children.

It’s a right that encourages parents to expect their child will graduate from college and succeed in life, even if, even maybe especially if, those parents never had that chance themselves.

Our work is not done until we have lived up to that promise. To do that, we need a strong new ESEA that fulfills the right of all children to have a real opportunity to succeed.

Watch highlights from today’s speech:

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Patrick Kerr is a member of the Communications Development division in the Office of Communications and Outreach