In the summer of 1857, 43 educators gathered in Philadelphia, answering a national call to unite as one voice in the cause of public education. At the time, learning to read and write was a privilege reserved for the fortunate few. But almost 160 years later, the voice of the once fledgling Association has risen to represent more than three million educators, and a free and public education has become a rite of passage for every American child.
Over the last 15 decades, the National Education Association (NEA) has led the country in advocating for children and the educators who teach and nurture them. Through the power of the collective, the union gave voice to some of the defining issues of our times: establishing the civil rights of Black children and educators, granting women the right to vote and leading the charge against child labor.
Ours is a history of people who inspired change. Today’s challenges require the same kind of leadership and moral courage demonstrated by the women and men who built our union.
I was born one year after the Supreme Court of the United States issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education opinion 60 years ago. By the time I began my career as an educator, I hoped that we would soon realize the promise of equal opportunity in education for every student.
Unfortunately, although the Court outlawed segregation, it is still a reality today – and Brown wasn’t simply about segregation. The Court wrote:
In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity … is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms …
The Justices were unanimous and they were unequivocal: equal opportunity in education is a constitutional right of all students. Yet that right to equal opportunity is still being denied to millions of students.
Most Hispanic and Black students are in classrooms in which at least two-thirds of their peers are also minorities, and virtually half are poor.
These schools often have inexperienced teachers, inadequate resources and dilapidated facilities. Plagued by segregated learning environments, minority children have remained disproportionately vulnerable to the legacy of racial bias and poverty.
This disparity in opportunity is illegal, immoral and costly for our nation. These opportunity gaps become even more urgent as the face of American public education is changing. Today, ethnic minority students comprise nearly 40 percent of the population in our nation’s schools. It is anticipated that during the next 20 years, that figure may well reach 50 percent.
If we are to preserve and advance America’s public schools, we must meet the needs of these children, support ethnic minority community commitment to public education, work collaboratively to improve the quality of their schools, and assure that all children receive the education they need and deserve.
Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is a unique opportunity to fulfill America’s promise of equal opportunity to all students. It has been more than 12 years now since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – the last reauthorization of ESEA – became law. The most crucial element of that iteration of the law was the introduction of disaggregated data to spotlight gaps in achievement for specific populations of students, including those in high-poverty schools, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and students with disabilities.
The theory: spotlighting achievement gaps would prompt the appropriate diagnosis and infusion of resources and interventions targeted to groups of students who most needed it. In reality, that has not occurred.
Now is the time to fix that deficiency. This time around, ESEA’s accountability system should revolve around an “opportunity dashboard” composed of key indicators of school quality disaggregated – largely data already captured by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights – on students’ access to, among other things:
- Advanced coursework (AP/IB, dual enrollment, college gateway math and science)
- Fully-qualified teachers
- Specialized instructional support personnel (school counselors, nurses and psychologists)
- High-quality early education
- Arts and athletic programs
- Community health care and wellness programs
The federal role in ensuring equal educational opportunity is as essential today as it was 60 years ago, when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. One in five of our children – more than 16 million – are living in households below the official poverty threshold (an income of $23,850 for a family of four). Remarkably, more than half of our public school students are now eligible for free- and reduced-price meals.
We know that every child can learn. We know that every child can reach the highest of heights when given the opportunity and resources to learn. To fulfill at last America’s promise of equal opportunity, the centerpiece of the accountability system in the next Elementary and Secondary Education Act must include an “opportunity dashboard” that will finally lead to the delivery of the supports and interventions to students who need it the most.