Weingarten, civil rights leaders discuss future of ESEA

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The AFT and the Albert Shanker Institute sponsored a conversation in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 18 about the stakes involved in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and what it will mean for the millions of students who look to their schools for a fair shake and a chance to reach their dreams.

AFT President Randi Weingarten joined two of the nation's top civil rights leaders—Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis and Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—for a discussion that traced ESEA's troubling shift in its current iteration (known as the No Child Left Behind Act) from a policy bulwark in the War on Poverty to a test-and-punish approach to schools.

Wade Henderson and Randi WeingartenWeingarten said much of the spirited discussion surrounding reauthorization of the law is fueled "by underlying anger at the hypocrisy of those who talk about leaving no child behind" while advancing policies that do precisely that. "Everybody is talking about tests and accountability without talking about the teaching and learning conditions where kids can thrive."

Today, 30 states spend less on education than they did before the recession, and more than half of America's public school students live in low-income households. Yet the current law ignores those facts by promoting a test-driven approach that has "shifted all responsibility to individual teachers and individual schools."

Washington circles "want to make it about accountability," Weingarten said of ESEA reauthorization. "If we don't make it about equity, then shame on us."

Henderson (pictured above with Weingarten) argued that NCLB is often tied to problems that hurt students and demonize educators: overtesting, discriminatory student suspension and expulsion policies, and mass firings of staff at buildings labeled as failing schools, to name a few. But, he said, he believes most of the blame stems not from NCLB but from the conditions of poverty, from the "law of unintended consequences," and from failures at the state and local levels when it comes to providing all students with an excellent education. There is a "lineage of contemporary problems and deep-seated problems" that has undercut students' right to a good education, particularly in poor communities, he said. Yet "the fundamental inequality in resource allocation is not something you can blame on NCLB," he stressed. "Blame it on states," which are still responsible for the lion's share of school funding.

Judith Browne Dianis and Wade HendersonDianis (pictured at left with Henderson) offered sharp criticism of NCLB as a law that never lived up to its promise. More than 13 years after NCLB's enactment, "the achievement gap still exists, and now we're stuck with charters, so-called choice and batteries of tests." Children are being hurt in this high-stakes environment, she said, describing NCLB as a landscape in which students are overtested, shuffled between classrooms and schools, subjected to improper placement decisions, and denied classroom learning time because of the demands of testing and test prep. The current law "has helped push an education reform agenda that works to the detriment of children," she said. "It's 'test, punish and push out.'"

All three panelists directed some of their strongest critiques at "portability"—the proposal allowing states to opt out of the current system of ESEA funding targeted to help poor children and redistribute those dollars to districts based on a count of poor children inside their boundary lines. Some Republican House leaders have seized on the idea, but a recent analysis from the White House reveals that portability would hurt some of the nation's poorest districts while offering small windfalls to wealthy ones. Congress must reject portability in the next version of ESEA, and it must include "maintenance of effort" language, which prevents states from using federal funds to cut back on their own contributions to schools. "That has to be sacrosanct," Weingarten said.

The panelists also agreed that even a well-crafted version of ESEA can only work if it is paired with comprehensive efforts at all levels to fight poverty and ensure opportunity for millions of Americans. "To achieve the comprehensive supports we want," Henderson said, "we have to show there is a connection" between laws like ESEA and a level playing field for all Americans.

[Mike Rose/photos by Pam Wolfe]