In the seven-year debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly failed to bridge multiple philosophical divides: local control vs. national standards, innovation vs. proven solutions, and individual responsibility vs. environmental hurdles.

As two nonprofits working to educate traditionally disadvantaged children in Texas, we can appreciate the fervor of the debate. In many ways, our organizations – IDEA Public Schools and Communities In Schools (CIS) – embody the political divide over operating philosophies and effective interventions in public education. But with students’ futures hanging in the balance, we found a way to look past our differences, forge a partnership, and move into action.


Now it’s time for Washington to do the same. We can debate the exact size of the federal footprint in education, but make no mistake: Without ESEA, public charter schools like IDEA would disappear, and support programs like CIS would wither. Poor schools would get even poorer, and poor students would fall further behind, creating the kind of permanent underclass that weakens democratic institutions.

IDEA Public Schools is a growing network of tuition-free K-12 public schools serving nearly 20,000 students in 36 schools across Texas. The goal is college for all children. IDEA stresses purposeful innovation and regular reinvention while holding teachers and administrators directly responsible for meeting the seemingly impossible goal of 100% college enrollment. “No Excuses” is enshrined as one of six core values at IDEA: “What we do during the day matters more than poverty, parent education level, or other external factors. When the adults in the system get it right, our students are successful.”

Communities In Schools tends to emphasize the other side of the equation, arguing that teachers’ effectiveness is constrained when poor kids come to the classroom unavailable for learning due to the toxic effects of poverty at home (stress, uncertainty, violence, hunger, etc.). Without accepting "excuses," CIS believes that poverty is a barrier to learning and that in-school provision of social services can help to level the playing field and close the achievement gap.

Despite these differences, our two organizations enjoy a close working relationship in the Rio Grande Valley, blending our approaches to make sure every child has an equal shot at success in school and in life.

IDEA teachers and administrators emphasize cutting-edge programs, personal responsibility and high expectations to achieve college acceptance rates that are simply unheard of in poor minority communities nationwide. Meanwhile, CIS coordinates with school leadership to support individual students who are struggling with the rigorous demands of the IDEA model. Working one-on-one with these at-risk students, CIS can identify the complex environmental factors that are holding them back – from medical needs to abusive relationships to uncertain housing – and leverage existing community resources to remove those barriers and improve educational outcomes. By empowering local communities to support local kids, the CIS model deploys resources closer to home, helping to increase effectiveness while reducing costs.

The result of this partnership is exemplary: More than 80 percent of IDEA’s Rio Grande Valley students are graduating with college-ready skills in both math and reading, compared to less than 40 percent for other students in the region. This past fall, and for seven of the eight years that IDEA has graduated seniors, 100 percent of its graduates have matriculated to college – twice the rate for all Texas high schools and five times the rate of low-income and Hispanic students nationwide.

To achieve great results, we don’t need to be in total agreement on educational theory or political philosophy. The partnership between IDEA and CIS proves that different approaches can be complementary, rather than competing. What unites us is the bedrock belief that every child counts, and that every dollar spent on education is an investment in a more just, enduring democracy.

In many ways, ESEA is the legislative embodiment of that core belief. In 1965 the law was born from the realization that state funding formulas would never close the achievement gap between rich students and poor students because property taxes will always channel resources back into the affluent neighborhoods from which they originated.

Rather than forcing states to change their spending priorities at the expense of middle class families, Congress essentially left local funding alone while directing federal dollars to the most at-risk communities. In that sense, ESEA was a fairly restrained reform effort, one designed to protect local autonomy in education while exerting federal interest in equal opportunity.

Fifty years later, we’re still trying to achieve that delicate balance, and the ongoing debate taps into crucial issues of justice, equity, opportunity and self-determination. Those are big, important ideas, but we can’t afford to let political abstractions trump the needs of living, breathing children – especially the most vulnerable children in our country.

Yes, the current federal law has problems, but the good news is, we’ve largely come to agreement on what they are. No one wants testing to preempt teaching, or bureaucracy to stifle innovation. No one wants to tie the hands of local educators, but we can’t afford to leave them empty-handed, either.

With a proposed budget in the $22 billion range, ESEA has room for both firm goals and flexible approaches. There is a way to advocate for standards without trampling the principle of local decision-making. There is a need for charter schools that accept "no excuses" and support organizations that harbor "no illusions."

All of us working in the public education space can live with a bill that accomplishes those things.

What we can’t live with is no bill at all.

Fuller is vice president of legislative relations for Communities In Schools and Goessling is chief advancement officer for the IDEA Public Charter Network