On January 21, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) convened its first full committee hearing on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a law passed 50 years ago to promote educational opportunity and protect the rights and interests of students disadvantaged by discrimination, poverty, and other conditions that may limit their educational attainment.
The hearing, titled “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability,” included a witness panel comprised of educators, state education officials, and civil rights education advocates, including Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The title of the hearing refers to the law’s last iteration, which expired in 2007 but has not been updated and remains the law without a replacement.
Henderson advocated for annual statewide assessments, consistent accountability systems to evaluate progress, and the preservation of a strong federal hand in education, saying, “Congress must not pass any ESEA bill that erodes the federal government’s power to enforce civil rights in education.” He also stressed that not all students begin on an even playing field when collateral factors, such as poverty, lead to educational inequalities. A 2015 report released by the Southern Education Foundation revealed that an astounding 51 percent of students attending public schools are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.
“We speak with one voice on behalf of all our children – girls and boys, students of color, students not yet proficient in English, those who have disabilities or are homeless or migrant, those in the criminal or juvenile justice systems, and those living in foster care, living on the streets, or living in the shadows,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s testimony reflected the shared principles of 24 civil rights groups and education advocates for the reauthorization of ESEA, released ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R. Tenn., who chairs the HELP Committee, also released a draft reauthorization bill ahead of the hearing, which reduces federal involvement in K-12 education and provides two standardized testing options.
In response to that proposal, Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference, said, “Now is not the time to make a U-turn in holding states and school districts accountable for providing a quality education to all children. Unfortunately, Chairman Alexander’s opening proposal would send us back to a dark time in our nation when schools across the country, operating with no federal oversight, could freely ignore the needs of disadvantaged students.”
Watch a recording of Wednesday’s hearing here.