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ESEA must be reauthorized

Last week, both the House and the Senate have debated bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), most recently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The reauthorization is 8 years overdue. In the House, Republican leadership has just scored a major victory by passing the Student Success Act (SSA); in the Senate, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA) is in the process of being debated.

Both bills contain similar provisions to give the states more power than the federal government, a conservative win, but ECAA in the Senate has also embraced liberal agendas, including pre-kindergarten expansion, to effectively make ECAA a bipartisan effort. There is a high risk that SSA, a much less bipartisan effort, will be vetoed by the White House, leaving ESEA reauthorization for another year yet again.

{mosads}My own experience with ESEA, at the time known as NCLB, has been mixed. I was in third grade when the testing began – honestly, this was the only effect I saw. I was going to a good school, and testing mainly meant that I got very good at filling in circles, and my teachers got very good at arguing against the time testing took away from instructional time. However, when I became involved in advocacy, and learned more about education policy, one of my first surprises was the benefits that NCLB had had for illuminating the so-called achievement gap between the high- and low-income schools.

ESEA, originally signed into law in 1965 by President Johnson, was intended to bring equal opportunity to education. It is crucial to this nation’s education system that ESEA is indeed reauthorized, so that the achievement gap can remain visible and will hopefully soon be closed. However, our gridlocked Congress and politicians’ firm agendas may prevent any ESEA reauthorization bill from being passed.

Two issues specifically are causing Democrats and Republicans alike to hold their ground: accountability and portability of funds.

The Obama administration and many Democratic representatives have been clear about not supporting a bill that does not hold states accountable enough, both for how they spend their money and how well their schools are doing. Leaving key accountability measures out of an ESEA reauthorization bill may lose the bill the Democratic support it needs to pass.

Portability of funds, a provision supported by the right, would allow the Title I funds allocated under ESEA to be tied to a student, rather than tied to a school. Republicans argue that at-risk or low-income families should have the right to choose the school that they go to, without a financial detriment to them. If the left is too steadfast on not allowing portability of funds, or the right is too insistent upon including it in the bill, this, too, could cause the bill to not pass.

Any reauthorization bill that passes through this Congress will ultimately be a win for Republicans, since control of education is overwhelmingly being given to the states. If accountability measures and restricted portability of funds is what this bill takes to have Democratic backing, I think that the right has to be willing to compromise with the left in order to push the reauthorization through. Here, it seems the Senate has taken the better approach than the House, but more compromise may be necessary for success.

Above all else, though, I would like to call on both sides of the aisle to be willing to compromise, and continue the bipartisan spirit of this effort. America’s students need a bill that will protect them from inequalities more than America could ever need stubbornness in politics. Eight years without an ESEA reauthorization is long enough.

Watkins is a member of Students for Education Reform and a student at Northeastern University.   

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