Federal K-12 Education Programs Face Obstacles to Renewal

While both Republicans and Democrats call it an issue where they may find common ground in 2011, Congress is facing tough choices on the future of the nation’s main K-12 education law—including how to respond to calls from Congressional Black Caucus members to focus more attention on low-income schools.

“To achieve our nation’s fundamental promise of equality, we must start with equal education and opportunity,” says U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., a CBC member who is proposing major changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Fattah and other CBC members are co-sponsoring the Fiscal Fairness Act, which would require states and localities to provide more funds to high-poverty schools. Under the bill, states and districts could not receive federal education dollars until they spend as much per student in high-poverty schools as they do in more affluent schools. Teacher salaries also would be part of the resource calculation formula, in what Fattah describes as an effort to end the trend of less experienced and lower-paid teachers being funneled to high-need schools.

“Resource inequity has been a serious obstacle to improved student achievement, and in many cases it has been a hidden obstacle because of ambiguities and loopholes in the well-intentioned ESEA,” Fattah says. “We need advocates for equitable resources to show courageous leadership and make institutional changes that give all students a fair opportunity at success.”

Co-sponsors of the Fiscal Fairness Act include U.S. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.; Danny Davis, D-Ill.; and Donald Payne, D-N.J. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former Denver school superintendent, is sponsoring companion legislation in the Senate. “We are one of only three developed countries to pump more money into affluent schools than low-income schools. That needs to change,” he says.

A second new Fattah bill, the Student Bill of Rights, seeks to ensure that students have access to all the educational resources they need to succeed in school.

These plans are just two of a myriad of issues facing Congress as it seeks to renew ESEA. One of the chief challenges for lawmakers is how to deal with the law’s 2002 reforms. While NCLB promotes accountability for many subgroups of students, including Hispanics and Blacks, some advocacy groups say the law places too much emphasis on testing and needs more funding to help struggling schools.

“We recognize that changes in the law are necessary to improve implementation of educational reforms; however, we resolutely believe that the federal responsibility to require strong accountability through performance goals for all schools and students remains critical to ensuring access to quality education for students of all backgrounds,” said a joint letter from the Tri-Caucus, which includes the CBC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus.

In addition to tracking achievement among Hispanics, Blacks and low-income students, the law should broaden its accountability measures to explore differences by gender, the group wrote. The law also should track data among Asian Pacific American sub-populations. Placing all these students—many from different countries—into the same category “masks the needs of [Asian American] subpopulations and often reinforces the ‘model minority’ stereotype,” the caucus said.

The Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says government needs to provide more competitive grants through ESEA for teacher and principal development. Ulrich Boser, senior fellow at the Center, says Congress should adopt ideas such as a Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund and a Teacher and Leaders Pathways program to prepare effective teachers to work in high-need schools.

“If our nation is going to remain a global economic leader, we must ensure all students, regardless of their family background, have the strong teachers they need and deserve,” he says.