It’s Broke, So Fix It

Reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act This Year

Cynthia Brown and Jeremy Ayers explain why our nation’s future economic competitiveness and moral compass rest on reforming our main federal education law.

Only about one-in-three eighth graders is proficient in reading. Most high schools graduate little more than two-thirds of their students on time. And even the students who do receive a high school diploma lack adequate skills—more than 33 percent of first-year college students need to take remedial classes in either math or English. Moreover, low-income and minority students fare worse, sometimes far worse, than their peers on every indicator of achievement.

Poor educational outcomes such as these harm not only students but also the communities in which they live. Over 7,000 students drop out of school each day, adding up to 1.3 million a year. If we cut that rate merely in half, the economy would see $5.6 billion in extra spending, $713 million in added tax revenue, and 54,000 new jobs. Clearly, the country has an economic, as well as a moral, stake in how well our schools are doing.

Such reform could not come soon enough. Our nation’s economic competitiveness depends on the success of our schools. But our future prosperity is uncertain when millions of students struggle to grasp the most basic reading and math skills in thousands of low-performing schools across this country. Congress must act quickly and decisively to improve our nation’s schools by revising the biggest federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. Only bold, progressive action to improve our nation’s schools will allow our country to move forward into the 21st century.

ESEA provides funds to the states and their almost 14,000 school districts to offset the consequences of student poverty. The law also makes significant educational requirements in the areas of standards, accountability, teaching, funding distribution and safeguards, and student support. In short, how Congress revises ESEA will determine the future of our schools and of our nation.

Unfortunately, other nations such as India and China are out-investing the United States in education as the way to build a more prosperous economy—at a time when some members of Congress are arguing for cutting education spending and scaling back the federal government’s involvement. That is why President Barack Obama wants Congress to reauthorize ESEA this year. While doing so, the president wants to increase our investment in education and to make permanent some significant reforms in the law, among them creating college- and career-ready standards, improving the effectiveness of teachers and principals, improving struggling schools, and investing in innovation so that education practices advance into the 21st century. This all makes sense.

Conservatives in Congress at this point mostly argue that we should eliminate programs and sharply reduce the federal role in education. But this is short-sighted governing that abdicates the responsibility for ensuring that all students get a fair shot at a good education. It is also lazy governing, an approach that does not take ownership of a serious problem that is so obviously national in scope that it requires federal leadership and determination.

Congress doesn’t need to defund federal education programs or diminish the federal role when so many of our schools are in crisis—it needs to reform ESEA to prepare all of our nation’s children for the challenges of the 21st century.

To do that, several fixes need to be made. For one, the current law focuses on teacher qualifications but does nothing to ensure they are effective in the classroom. ESEA also requires struggling schools to implement improvement strategies that have not shown results. Finally, the current law does not adequately address clear federal funding programs that are inefficient or ineffective, particularly for those students struggling to learn amid poverty. The next version of ESEA should look markedly different than it does now, and such significant change will require hard, bipartisan work. At a minimum, a new ESEA should:

  • Continue to hold schools accountable. The new law must set a high bar and get results, particularly from low-income and minority students who often fare worse than their peers.
  • Improve teacher and principal effectiveness. The new law should require rigorous evaluation systems and then use that data to improve teachers’ skills, make hiring and dismissal decisions, and ensure all students have a great teacher.
  • Ensure funding practices are fair and efficient. By closing loopholes and adjusting formulas in the current law that allow districts to shortchange poor schools, the new law would help our most needy students. And by reporting spending and achievement data, these inequities and inefficiencies can be fixed.
  • Encourage dramatic turnaround in chronically underperforming schools. These new reforms should include changing the teachers and principals in the building, increasing learning time in the school day or year, and addressing the nonacademic needs of struggling students so they are able to learn.

These reforms would reap important benefits for millions of students and thousands of schools. Strong accountability, fair funding, and equal access to effective teachers mean that all students get an equal shot at a better life. Clear, transparent data on what schools spend and what they achieve allows taxpayers to see what bang they are getting for their buck. And a clear focus on student and teacher outcomes means our children graduate from high school ready for college or a career, resulting in increased earnings, additional tax revenue, and a higher-skilled population capable of competing with global competitors.

In short, reauthorization of ESEA offers a seminal opportunity to advance smart, progressive policies that improve the educational and economic opportunities for students, their communities, and our nation. Failing to reauthorize ESEA would be like pulling a life vest away from a flailing swimmer. We need to act now to improve the nation’s education system, and the Center for American Progress stands ready to work with Congress to reauthorize ESEA in a timely and thoughtful manner.

Cynthia Brown is Vice President for Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. Jeremy Ayers is a Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Center.

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Cynthia G. Brown

Former Senior Fellow

Jeremy Ayers

Associate Director, Federal Education Programs