Opinion: Unless we’re careful, the new ‘No Child’ may still leave some behind
PennLive Op-Ed – Dec. 24, 2015 – By Deborah Gordon Klehr and Jackie Perlow:
Earlier this month President Barack Obama signed into law a comprehensive overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), previously known as No Child Left Behind.
First passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the mission of this federal law is “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”
While past iterations of ESEA have failed to fulfill this promise, this month’s reauthorization offers states like Pennsylvania an opportunity to reaffirm ESEA’s central mission to advance educational equity and protect the civil rights of vulnerable students.
In several ways this reauthorization, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), represents an improvement over existing legislation.
It will provide targeted support to struggling schools, including schools where traditionally overlooked student groups consistently underperform.
The new ESSA does more to hold schools responsible for the achievement of English language learners, including those with disabilities, and provides significant educational protections for children in foster care and those experiencing homelessness.
The law also expands educational opportunities for youth in the juvenile justice system and supports their smooth transition both into and out of juvenile justice school placements.
In addition, we know that many vulnerable students experience trauma, and ESSA also takes positive steps to support schools to recognize and address trauma. We applaud these important new provisions.
However, the Education Law Center remains concerned about whether the new law has the teeth to guarantee a quality public education to our state’s most vulnerable students.
On its face, the changes in ESSA will do little to improve resource inequities, discipline disparities, or the lack of opportunities for educationally at-risk students in Pennsylvania.
Most worrisome, however, is the law’s lack of federal oversight and accountability.
Under ESSA, much of the responsibility for ensuring educational opportunities for vulnerable students has been shifted to the states.
Both current research and our experience in Pennsylvania show that when states are given unfettered control over education, the civil rights of the most educationally vulnerable students often go unprotected and their academic outcomes suffer.
We are concerned that without federal oversight, schools in Pennsylvania may ignore the needs of the educationally vulnerable students they serve.
In no area is this concern more pressing than when it comes to school discipline. Under No Child Left Behind, schools faced harsh consequences if students failed to achieve on high-stakes testing.
This focus on standardized test scores incentivized schools to push out the students who posed the greatest challenges.
At the same time, states largely turned a blind eye to the resulting discipline practices that disproportionately excluded students of color and students with disabilities.
While data shows that students of all races violate school rules at the same rate, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.
The consequences of punitive discipline reach far beyond missing a day or two of class.
Students who are suspended even once in ninth grade are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school.
We know that unless the state actively holds itself accountable for eliminating existing discipline disparities, discriminatory and overly punitive discipline practices will continue to act as barriers for our most vulnerable students.
While ESSA will not require Pennsylvania to address these disparities, it does offer an opportunity to do so.
Under ESSA, each state is charged with developing an accountability plan. This plan must include three academic factors and one non-academic factor.
The law permits states to choose “school climate” – a broad term that encompasses suspensions, expulsions, and removal to alternative education settings – as the non-academic factor in their accountability plan.
The Education Law Center urges Pennsylvania to take advantage of this opportunity and identify school climate as the fourth factor in its accountability plan.
We also caution Pennsylvania not to replicate the incentives in No Child Left Behind that drove schools to adopt exclusionary discipline practices in a failed attempt to improve school performance.
Rather, the state’s renewed attention to an accountability framework should address improving academic performance in tandem with addressing school discipline.
This opportunity is timely because the Wolf administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Education have recently announced plans to revamp the state’s current and flawed School Performance Profile metric, which often penalizes schools impacted by poverty rather than rewarding progress.
However, including this factor is only the first step. As the state begins the process of developing and implementing its accountability plan, it is vital that Pennsylvania engage parents, students, advocates, and educators in these decisions.
We urge the state to seek out communities and leaders with diverse perspectives and include their voices at every step in the accountability plan process.
Only by holding ourselves accountable for eliminating the barriers that harm vulnerable students and providing schools with the resources they need to support them will Pennsylvania be able to avoid the shortcomings of the ESSA and ensure that all students in the state receive the quality education they deserve.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is the Executive Director of the Education Law Center. Jackie Perlow, Esq. is the Kaufman Legal Fellow at the Education Law Center.