As Congress debates the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), members should pause before acting too fast. Since 1965, ESEA has provided extra money -- nearly $17 billion -- to create a more just learning field for children disadvantaged by poverty, children with disabilities, children who are homeless, foster and migrant children, children in detention, children still learning English, and others. In my period-7 ninth-grade English class alone, that would be nine out of 17 students: two from Myanmar, one from Nigeria, one from Mexico, and five with behavioral, emotional, or learning disabilities (ranging from anger to autism).
I teach for them and for all my students. I teach to make the world a more just place. Unfortunately, members of Congress see the world differently. They want to cut ESEA funding, and, according to the Center for American Progress, the savings will be rerouted away from high-need schools and students like mine to low-poverty schools.
What sort of vision of education is that? What sort of vision of our democracy is that?
My students -- all students -- deserve better. Nearly every politician says that a 21st-century education should not depend on a child's zip code. I agree. All our schools should have high expectations for all students. All teachers should be trained, prepared, and allocated the funds necessary to best serve all students and help them reach their dreams.
Poverty is real and pervasive. In a perfect world, this additional money could provide experiential learning opportunities for students and meaningful professional development for teachers. But we live in a world where cities, states, and the federal government tragically have failed to build and sustain communities. In a perfect world, this additional money could help bridge the gap to college for first-generation students. But I teach in a state where only 16 percent of students qualifying for a free lunch earned an honors diploma. (By contrast, 44 percent of paid meals students earned an honors diploma.)
My students come to my school and my classroom from this world. It's a world where one in five children lives without enough to eat. For the most part, these students have no idea that they receive additional funding or extra support. But without those extra resources, these students -- the very bedrock of who we are as a country -- will lack the abilities or desires to lead us through our next big thing.
And we want them to be able to lead, which is why I hold my students accountable for learning even if they haven't had more than an apple to eat. I also teach children whose parents sent them to America to have a better education, a better life, and a better opportunity to contribute. Not only do I teach them, but I adapt my instruction and use data to better close their learning gaps and support their growth. In my period-7 class, my three highest student grades are my three international students; two of them have only spoken English for six years. They may receive a free breakfast and lunch, but they work hard to earn their grade and demonstrate their knowledge. The data, like poverty, is real. I urge Congress to understand both.
And I urge members of Congress to understand what will happen if they decrease that funding. My students won't know; they will still arrive in my classroom wanting to learn. And I will still require them to demonstrate their learning in all the ways that will make my school, their community, and this country a better place to live and lead.
I urge Congress to continue to fund ESEA at its present levels (or increase the funding). And, like my hardworking students, I urge Congress to continue to hold my colleagues and me accountable for fulfilling our credo to teach all those "yearning to breathe free." Because that's what I do.
Jacob Pactor is an English teacher at Speedway High School in Indiana. He is a Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellow in Education Leadership, a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum, and a featured educator in "The Cage-Busting Teacher."