Nearly 50 years ago, President Johnson signed the first major piece of legislation to support disadvantaged students in America’s public schools: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The passage of that law was significant in that it focused, in President Johnson’s words, on both the “quality and equality in schooling that we offer our young people.” For 50 years, the law has persistently focused on expanding and protecting educational opportunity.
As Congress readies itself to rewrite that law -- which is today the No Child Left Behind Act -- it is critical to ensure that this landmark education law maintains its core mandates of quality and equality, while taking on new challenges facing America’s students. Earlier this week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put forward a set of principles for this law’s reauthorization that celebrate the progress we have made as a country while recognizing that we have room for further improvement.
The principles that Secretary Duncan put forward are as powerful as they are simple.
First, every child deserves access to high-quality preschool to prepare them for success in kindergarten and beyond. Millions of children start kindergarten behind their peers because they lack access to high-quality early learning opportunities. On Monday, Secretary Duncan asked: “Will we work together to expand access to high-quality preschool…or is that optional?” 175 lawmakers made their answer clear last year by signing onto the Strong Start for America’s Children Act -- bipartisan legislation to make preschool available for all children.
Second, teachers and schools deserve access to greater resources and adequate support to help children reach high standards of learning. Reform without the necessary resources will shortchange educational opportunity. In February, the President will call for a $2.7 billion increase for education spending in his budget – including an additional $1 billion to restore cuts to the Title I program. As with any new spending proposals, we will offset these costs in our upcoming budget so as not to add to the deficit.
Third, Secretary Duncan affirmed that "the arts, history, foreign languages, and advanced math and sciences are essentials, not luxuries" in our public schools. Children deserve access to a complete and competitive curriculum that reflects learning in reading and math as well as these other core subjects.
Finally, every parent and community deserves to know that "schools are making a priority of the progress of all children," and to know that when students fall behind, "their schools will take action to improve." The hallmark of accountability for the progress of every child must be preserved in this congressional rewrite of this education law.
Secretary Duncan affirmed the need to maintain the requirement for all students to take annual, statewide assessments aligned to college- and career-readiness. Just yesterday, civil rights leaders representing students and parents across the country affirmed the importance of these assessments to ensure that our schools make progress for all children. But he also acknowledged the challenging topic that testing has become in education reform. With a reliance on standardized tests comes a responsibility to limit their use and to ensure their quality.
We believe a new education law should strike a better balance between providing parents, teachers, and students with the information that they need and ensuring that standardized testing doesn't take up too much time in school. That's why Secretary Duncan announced plans to "urge Congress to have states set limits on the amount of time spent on state- and district-wide standardized testing, and notify parents in they exceed these limits," following the lead of states like New York that limit the amount of time spent on testing to no greater than 2 percent of total classroom time.
A revised education law must foster the progress of all children and ensure that they are set up for success in college, careers and in life; it must foster innovation and advance equity; and it must better support and assist teachers and parents in their mission to help every child succeed. President Obama looks forward to working with the leadership in both chambers of Congress to pass a reauthorization that continues the path of opportunity, support, and resources that will deliver for every child.