Missed Opportunity: Young children and disadvantaged youth deserve more attention in ESEA Reauthorization

By Kisha Bird and Christina Walker

On July 16, 2015, the U.S. Senate passed its Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA) reauthorization bill, the Every Child Achieves Act ( S.1177), with an overwhelming show of bi-partisan support. The bill, brokered by Senate leaders Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Patty Murray (D-Washington), includes important provisions, such as:

  • requiring goals for achievement and high school graduation;
  • specifying the collection of data related to educational resources, including per-pupil expenditures;
  • disaggregating student achievement data; and
  • allowing funds to be used to improve early childhood education programs and to promote better coordination through agreements with Head Start agencies and other entities to carry out these activities.

However, the bill fails to direct or provide resources to local districts and states to implement effective strategies to improve student achievement and address access and equity gaps for poor and low-income students. In particular, the bill does not include a dedicated funding stream for pre-k or for dropout prevention and recovery for students in the middle and high school grades. 

On July 8th, the House passed its ESEA reauthorization bill, the Student Success Act (H.R. 5). Similarly, H.R. 5 does not target funding to address these issues and fails to include protections for poor and vulnerable students. H.R. 5 would also divert much-needed funds from the highest poverty schools and districts through the “portability” concept. This would allow Title I funds, which have the express purpose of assisting public schools with high concentrations of poverty and high-need students, to follow a child to any public or private school and would undermine critical targeting of limited Title I funds.   

Passed during the civil rights era in 1965, ESEA’s purpose has always been to provide educational opportunity to all students and provide funding to districts to better serve poor and low-income students. Today, there is a high number of children in poverty and they are disproportionately of color. Poor and low-income children and youth have far worse education and employment outcomes in adulthood, and they are also more likely to drop out of high school. ESEA reauthorization represents an important opportunity to address equity gaps and achievement among poor students and students of color.  

In particular, ESEA should include dedicated funding that would target low-performing middle and high schools and implement proven dropout prevention and recovery strategies to better support struggling students and those who have dropped out. The on-time high school graduation rate has steadily improved to 81 percent for the class of 2013. Strategies such as  early identification and intervention approaches for middle school students who feed into high schools with low graduation rates, and the growing number of dropout recovery and reengagement efforts in communities across the country have no doubt helped to spur these positive changes.  Federal policy should build on this momentum, not abandon it. Too many students still fail to graduate from high school on time, and students of color still face unacceptable graduation gaps. ESEA should also help states and local districts tackle institutional challenges in supporting students to be college and career ready by providing resources and direction to improve course availability and gaps, counselor ratios, and teacher quality in high-poverty schools.  At a time, when a growing majority of all U.S. jobs will require some postsecondary education, a focus on these issues is critical to our future economy.

Furthermore, high-quality early care and education programs play a critical role in the healthy development of young children, particularly those in low-income households. Despite growing consensus on the importance of the early years, lack of public investment leaves many young children without access to high-quality early education programs, including Head Start, public and community-based preschool programs, and child care programs. Both the Senate and the House bills stopped short of providing a dedicated funding stream to provide high-quality early childhood education through a mixed-delivery system for children ages birth through five. Moreover, the bills did not include strong accountability language, such as improved data collection policies and procedures that require programs to report how many children under the age of school entry are served by ESEA funds; which services these children receive and the total expenditures related to this age group; and the adoption of developmentally appropriate, early learning assessments.

The Senate and House bills are now headed to the conference committee charged with reconciling differences and drafting  a compromise bill that is acceptable to both houses of Congress and that the President can sign. While it is unlikely, the choice to advance important protections for poor and vulnerable students and fund strategies to address equity gaps among students of color is still a possibility.