Fixing ESEA: Looking Out For All Students

The demands of the real world have changed – and with them, the educational needs of our young people.

This week, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives will make important decisions that will have real impact on our children’s learning—and whether high expectations and equal opportunity for all groups of students will translate into action, or just a talking point.

As families everywhere recognize, success in today’s world is no longer just about what you know. It’s about what you can do with what you know—it’s about creativity, critical thinking, and teamwork to develop new solutions to new problems. Success for our nation depends on providing every student in this country with the opportunity to learn at high levels—and on an expectation that, when schools or vulnerable groups of students fall behind, leaders will take action.

Low-income children now make up the majority of our nation’s public school students. Leaving them behind is no longer just a moral failing, it’s also an unmitigated disaster for America’s ability to compete in the global economy.

We join with numerous other civil rights, education and business groups in urging Congress to make a critical choice for our children—whether or not to roll back important federal protections for vulnerable students. It’s a deliberate choice for excellence and equity–to insist that all children deserve a world-class education, no matter their background, family’s income, zip code, or skin color.

Both the Senate and the House are debating whether or not to gut the most important tool the federal government has to ensure that all students have a fair shot, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind. The law today doesn’t serve states, educators or students well, and it’s time to fix what’s broken.

But as that change happens, Congress faces a choice that has profound moral and economic consequences. Congress must not compromise the nation’s vital interest in protecting our most vulnerable, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to reach their full potential, and providing educators and schools with the support and resources that they need to do their vitally important work.

For decades, this law has provided funds and set guidelines to help ensure that factors such as poverty, race, disability, and language don’t limit the education that a child receives. And it has aimed to protect students who are most in need of additional supports so that they, their families, and their teachers have the same prospects and access to resources as their more advantaged peers.

There are many praiseworthy aspects of the bill that the Senate will consider this week, but if ESEA is to live up to its legacy as a civil rights law, both the Senate and House bills must do much more to ensure accountability for the lowest-performing five percent of schools, schools where groups of students are not meeting academic goals, and those where too many students are not graduating.

All parents and communities should be guaranteed that if schools are not sufficiently supporting students to graduate from high school ready for college and career, states, districts, and educators will implement interventions that correct course. They should be guaranteed that there will be additional resources and supports in those schools, with especially comprehensive supports in the lowest performing schools.

Without those guarantees, high expectations could become a matter of lip service rather than a reason for action—with dangerous consequences for individuals and our society.

We applaud the leadership of Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP); Senator Patty Murray, the Committee’s senior Democrat; and the other members of the HELP committee for the important steps that they’ve taken to advance a bipartisan proposal to reauthorize ESEA. But we urge them and their colleagues, as they begin to debate the bill this week, to make critically needed improvements.

Every school in every city and town across the country should be a hub for success. This is the essential step we must take for the reality of America to live up to the promise that is America.

In this country, education always has been a bipartisan cause—and it must continue to be. Unfortunately, the version of ESEA reauthorization that the House of Representatives is considering this week is a bill that has been written with virtually no bipartisan input, and would represent a major step backwards for our nation and its children.

At a time when our public schools are more diverse than ever before and our nation’s welfare depends to an unprecedented degree on developing the potential of every student in America, we must demand an education law that provides meaningful accountability and upholds principles of equity and excellence for all students. We urge Congress to pass a law that does just that.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education, Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League, and Wade Henderson is the President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights


  1. As an educator in a district with a large at-risk population and low achieving scores in both reading and writing, I too feel our nation’s leaders need to reach out and take action for change in our schools to support america’s youth and offer quality education for all students. Lower achieving schools need more support in their buildings to make effective change for student’s learning and their schools overall effective success. Our government continues to not offer funding to our public schools, while the population gets increasingly more challenging the classroom sizes continue to grow as well. We need officials who care and take action.

  2. The NCLB Act is a small part of what is wrong with education today. Too many talented people are driven out of education by adults including administrators, other teachers, sports groups, state bureaucrats and district politicians.

    Well-meaning, talented teachers and substitutes are not the real problem here. The main problem resides with those who direct them and those that control the purse strings.

    How many physicists, engineers, chemists and technicians who have offered to teach in our nation’s schools are not teaching? Has anyone bothered to ask them why they aren’t in the classroom even when they love teaching? Has anyone ever followed up on good teachers that have been driven out of the classroom or have voluntarily walked out the door in the same year that they did excellent teaching?

    Why does one suppose that many first year teachers have left suddenly or why large numbers of young people have opted out of teaching? Have they all had “meltdowns” or have they been driven out by bad administrators? If this awful trend continues, there won’t be any talented or experienced people left to teach American children or has that really been the plan of the “collective” all along?

  3. At a time in history when more than half of our students are living in poverty, how can you lower the amount of money school districts receive? While I know the world views Cape Cod and the islands as being very wealthy, our district, in the mid cape area has 54% poverty, and the school in which I work has 68% poverty. Our community is comprised of more than 50% seniors, who ” have paid enough school taxes,” so we run on a very close budget. The ESEA money is the only thing helping our poor children. We need every cent you can spare to help these children find their place in the coming world. They are bright, curious, creative young people that barely stand a chance unless we can stimulate their minds through education.
    Thank you for all you have done while in office.

  4. I will be very happy if the US government may permit me for free education in the USA .my family is very poor but I wish go to school.

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