Bill Deserves Conditional Support

WASHINGTON, DC — MALDEF has long called for a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but has insisted that any reauthorization must embody the law’s civil rights legacy adapted to our nation’s new and emerging demographics. The congressional process that unfolded over the course of the last year has been mired by flaws, from the initial partisanship of both bills, to the unacceptable exclusion of Congressional Hispanic Caucus members from the conference committee.

Nonetheless, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), currently before the Senate, is worthy of conditional support. MALDEF lauds the ESSA’s specificity in requiring assessment of the academic success of all students, including each significant subgroup; in emphasizing the singular importance of academic performance in holding school systems at all levels accountable for closing the education gaps continually faced by Latino students and others; in mandating meaningful interventions tailored to succeed in addressing the specific needs of subgroups not being well served; and in focusing on long extant school resource inequities that continue to prevent our public schools from adequately educating all students.

However, while the ESSA is strong in specificity, it lacks the necessary aggressiveness to address one of the nation’s foremost national security crises: the still unmet challenge of providing equal educational opportunity to all students. Meeting this challenge is the essential foundation of our continued success as a nation. In every other area of civil rights, we have long recognized that national uniformity and an aggressive federal role are prerequisites to successfully living up to our nation’s principles. Only in education do we continue to insist upon — addictively and to our detriment — maximizing local and state discretion and on downplaying the uniformity and justice that a robust federal role provides. This must change. Regrettably, the ESSA does not move our nation in this necessary direction.

Nonetheless, MALDEF supports the bill, but we recognize that its passage must come with a shared commitment to ensuring vigorous state implementation and enforcement, unified support for strong federal regulatory guidance, and an ironclad pledge to intervene legislatively if the ESSA proves inadequate to the task of ensuring significant reduction in the education gap nationwide, in its first three years of implementation. As a nation, we cannot wait thirteen, ten, or even five years under a failed federal legislative effort. In this critical endeavor, English learners will serve as a critical barometer in measuring the effectiveness of the ESSA. In the past, state and local policymakers have neglected, and even abused, English learners because they are viewed as the least politically powerful subgroup. The ESSA will have failed if English learners do not make substantial progress, uniformly across the nation.

As the ESSA is enacted and implemented, MALDEF will continue to play its role in ensuring that we live up to our national principles, that we live up to the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, and that we are accountable to our future success as an educated nation.