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The Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- 45 Years Later

Posted: 04/11/10 02:20 PM ET

"Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination."--Lyndon Johnson

In 1965, President Johnson laid out his vision for an America that would see an "an end to poverty and racial injustice" and where every child would "find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents."

It was a message of hope and change in the midst of heartache and anguish. Black Americans were still being denied the right to vote, and civil rights demonstrators were brutally beaten by state troopers in Selma, Ala.

As bleak as things seemed, there were some who could imagine a brighter day.

One of the reasons for optimism was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- a piece of legislation that President Johnson called the "only valid passport from poverty." The bill was filled with real promise for all our children. It was the first massive infusion of federal dollars into our nation's schools, and it established popular programs like Head Start, provided educational resources in under-served communities, supported educators and encouraged greater family and community involvement in schools.

For many years, ESEA worked: achievement gaps began to close, literacy rates soared, children -- from all walks of life -- attended college. But then, over the decades, things changed. The world got bigger, and our commitment to equality got smaller. Real promises were replaced with good intentions. We swapped hope with fear.

Our focus shifted from children to children's test scores.

In the past decade, under "No Child Left Behind" (President Bush's re-named version of ESEA), we left behind many of the values embodied in ESEA, abandoning its original promise to our children. Instead of uplifting all of America's students we created a culture of labels and blame, using high-stakes, do-or-die standardized tests to punish our schools, our communities, and, worst of all, our children.

ESEA is once again facing reauthorization in Congress, and we are at another turning point. Now is the time to recommit ourselves to the promise of ESEA, and the very real needs of our children. It is time to reintroduce art and science and physical fitness into our classrooms, because our goal must be to enrich lives and enlarge talents, just as President Johnson promised so long ago. And instead of blaming and firing educators en masse, it is time to listen to them and give them the tools and resources they need to truly transform our schools.

Forty five years ago this month, when ESEA was signed into law, President Johnson said, "By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope...and we rekindle the revolution, the revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance."

There is no place for tyranny -- of any type -- in our schools. As we move forward to reauthorize this important legislation, we should do so with President Johnson's words echoing in our hearts. We cannot accept a law that still blames and labels, or establishes winners and losers. Instead, we need a new ESEA that instills a sense of shared responsibility. We must return to the original focus of ESEA -- our children -- and ensure that the next version of ESEA allows ALL of our children "to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination."

Dennis Van Roekel was a high school math teacher for 23 years and now serves as the president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. Dr. Lois Edinger served as NEA president from 1964 to 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law. More information about NEA is available at www.nea.org.