by Colleen Flaherty
Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law as part of his “War on Poverty” to create the first general aid-to-education program to provide funding for the nation’s most vulnerable students—children living in poverty, students with disabilities and English-language learners. Johnson believed that “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal.”
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“By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than five million educationally deprived children,” said Johnson in his remarks on signing ESEA into law. “As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is only valid in its passport from poverty, the only valid passport.”
Earlier this week, Senate leaders released a bipartisan draft of ESEA reauthorization. As Congress takes on rewriting ESEA, educators are urging legislators to keep in mind the original goal of the bill—opportunity for all.
“I’m a daughter of an immigrant, a granddaughter of a sharecropper and the first in my family to go to college. The Act provided federal resources for states to level the playing field between schools in wealthy and poor districts,” said Utah educator and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “It was meant to ensure all students—students like me—had access to a great public school education, no matter their ZIP code, color or creed.”
However, Garcia notes that since she began her career as an educator, the current legislation has gotten further away from the original goals set forth by President Johnson.
In 2002, when Congress retooled the law and gave it a different name, No Child Left Behind, it ushered in an era of education requiring rote memorization at the expense of analytical and critical thinking. The demands of high stakes testing make it impossible for educators to do what is most important: instill a love of learning in their students. Instead of raising student achievement, NCLB has perpetuated a system that delivers unequal opportunities and uneven quality to America’s students. More than ever, a student’s ZIP code dictates the education available to her.
Garcia urges Congress to listen to educators on what works in the classroom and fulfill the original promise of ESEA.
“In this reauthorization, we’re looking at Congress to do more than just get rid of the bad stuff that has hurt kids. If Congress really wants an opportunity to set a new vision of shared responsibility for our public education system, a reauthorized ESEA must do three things: create more opportunities for all students to receive a quality education, no matter their ZIP code; allow more time for students to learn; ensure every student has a qualified educator who is empowered to teach and to lead. Let’s get ESEA right this time.”