Restore the True Spirit of ESEA

03/04/2015 12:02 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

The single most important issue facing the 114th Congress is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a law whose primary purpose when it was originally passed was to alleviate the conditions of poverty that often cripple the ability of educators to meet our professional commitments and crush the hopes of the children we serve.

At its recent AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, a statement titled Restore the Promise of ESEA was introduced and passed asking Congress to reclaim the true spirit of ESEA -- a law signed by then President Lyndon Baines Johnson as a way to alleviate poverty by providing adequate resources to disadvantaged and special needs children, thereby helping them to better compete.

The AFL CIO statement further calls on Congress to invest in the things frontline educators know our students need to secure a high quality education, rather than perpetuating the mandates and evaluation schemes promoted under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that have so patently failed.

Indeed recalling the intent of ESEA only highlights the flaws in the first draft of the legislation, Student Success Act, soon to be debated in the House of Representatives. The draft continues to weigh heavily on testing and keeping funding at sequestration levels, making it difficult, if not impossible, to provide services and resources in areas where child poverty is at an all-time high.

In fact, a report released recently by the White House found that the bill would cap spending for the next six years at $800 million lower than it was in 2012.

During the public response phase of HR 5, my union, the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), made suggestions of ways to improve the act. In coalition with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), we submitted recommendations calling for inclusion of school leaders in the development of evaluation plans and more professional development and training. In addition, our coalition challenged performance assessments currently in use.

A joint statement we submitted to Congress noted that "assessments that are attached to high-stakes and a punitive label regardless of whether or not a student is actually making academic gains and growth is counterproductive. This has led to an untenable environment of over-testing, and [has] forced educators to spend less time on instruction in order to prepare for standardized tests."

To address these inequities, we urged that states and districts use more expansive growth models instead of high-stakes assessments in the belief that such an expansion of assessment systems would put more balance, fairness, and accuracy in measuring student and school progress and performance. The AFL CIO's Executive Council statement strongly endorsed this approach by, among other things, calling for an end to the federal mandate on teacher and principal evaluations.

Dr. Christine Handy, principal at Gaithersburg High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, made a more viable path to success apparent in her testimony before the Senate Health Education Labor Pension (HELP) Committee when she stated, "ESEA must acknowledge the vital role of principals and provide them with appropriate professional support to ensure high academic achievement for all students."

Congress has the opportunity to invest in our nation's most valuable resource -- our youth. We need to write to our legislators to remind them of the original intent of ESEA and the need to ensure that our students get a world-class education that allows them to become contributing members of society.