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The Wrong Approach to Fixing No Child Left Behind

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If Congress were actually capable of passing significant legislation, the futures of millions of school children would have been severely harmed by what happened in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, when the House Committee on Education and the Workforce debated legislation to renew No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The "Student Success Act," which was approved in a party-line vote on Tuesday, will likely never become law. But what it intends to do should send a chill up the spine of anyone who cares about civil rights or the education of children of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

For all its faults, NCLB stays true to the original purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which was enacted during the civil rights era along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965--all designed to break down legal and social barriers to equal opportunity. NCLB requires schools to address the educational needs of every child. This policy was necessary because states and school districts were content with setting low standards for students, which meant that children whose education had been ignored for decades after the Brown v. Board of Education court decision would never catch up to students in more affluent communities or White students in their own school districts or schools. NCLB was designed to change this by requiring states and school districts to improve the public schools in every community for every child.

Has NCLB worked? Clearly it hasn't accomplished all of its goals. How we respond matters, however. The "Student Success Act" is the wrong approach.

The "Student Success Act" doesn't update NCLB; it obliterates it. And what was at the heart of the ESEA--educational opportunity for all--is the collateral damage. The "Student Success Act" allows states to set their own accountability systems in which they do not have to help students meet high standards, they do not have to help students make real progress, and they don't have to graduate young people. Worst of all, schools that no longer serve these students will face no consequences. This is unacceptable. We can do better.

It is time that the ESEA were treated once again as a civil rights law focused on bringing excellent schools into every community. For the past several years, the education policy debate has been about how NCLB has made the lives of adults in the school system difficult and how it has breached states' rights. But ESEA wasn't enacted in 1965 to address the needs of ineffective school leaders or to accommodate intransigent states opposed to the mandates of the Brown decision. Just as in the civil rights era, ESEA remains the main vehicle for expanding opportunities for children of color, students with disabilities, English language learners, and children from low-income households. Reauthorization of ESEA must be designed to meet this goal. The "Student Success Act" simply doesn't cut it.