07/17/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Lawmakers Prep to Abandon Our Most Vulnerable Children

Our children's chance to achieve the American dream shouldn't depend on the zip code where they are born, but members of the House of Representatives are about to make that the official policy of the land. Soon, if they have their way, House Republicans will turn their backs on decades of bipartisan work on education policy. And, in the process, they will return us to a time when the quality of a child's education was determined completely by local politics and schools could (and did) wash their hands of any responsibility for the performance of underserved students -- low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Congress is right about one thing: No Child Left Behind needs to be fixed. But the House's "fixes" will make things far worse, not better. The progress we've made in recent years to address education inequities and close long-standing gaps between groups that have hobbled our country for so long? Make no mistake: It will disappear ... and fast.

You don't have to flip too far back in the history books to understand the likely consequences if Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline's bill - HR 5, the Student Success Act - becomes law. Congress tried much of the same thing in 1994. They sent billions of dollars to states, but gave them complete discretion to design their own accountability systems and define how much progress was enough.

When handed that kind of flexibility, what did states do? Close to one-third didn't establish statewide accountability systems at all. Most states didn't report performance levels for low-income students, students of color, or students with disabilities; and only two states made their performance actually matter in school accountability.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those children made less progress during the 1990s (in fourth-grade math and reading and eighth-grade math) than they did in subsequent years, when policymakers prompted real attention to the achievement of all groups of students.

The truth is that we have to accelerate progress, not slow it down. This wonderful diversity of American children is our strategic advantage in the world economy. But we're about to squander that advantage by reducing dollars to unsustainably low levels, gutting requirements that federal dollars flow on top of an even base, and otherwise letting states and districts return to bad old ways of doing business -- all while the federal government looks the other way.

Handing out federal dollars with no accountability isn't a conservative idea or a liberal idea. It's a bad idea. While Chairman Kline may call it "reducing the federal footprint," I call it a willful abandonment of our most vulnerable children.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said he will move "heaven and earth" to get this 520-page bill enacted into law. What I can't figure out is why House Speaker John Boehner -- who joined with President Bush, Senator Kennedy, Congressman Miller, and many others in 2001, literally moving heaven and earth to make poor children finally matter in American schools -- would allow this bill to move forward at all. He has proven before that he cares deeply about inequities in our education system and that he will mow down obstacles in his own party and across the aisle to make much needed changes. Where is that courageous leadership now?