Civil Rights groups caution against watering down ESEA

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A guest post by Derek Black

Yesterday, thirty six civil rights groups released a letter to the Senate on ESEA reauthorization.  The signatories included all the major organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, NAACP LDF, MALDEF,  Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, National Urban League, and Ed Trust.  This is not the first time civil rights organizations have weighed in on reauthorization in the past year or so, but it may be the most significant.

That they penned the letter yesterday is probably indicative of the growing sense that we could be on the verge of reauthorization.  As noted earlier this week, the House has revived their earlier bill. The letter is also significant in the poignancy and substance of its recommendations.  Overall, the letter reflects a fear of erosion of the federal role in education, which is the general effect in the current bills before the House and Senate.

The letter makes four points: keep accountability for all schools, keep disaggregated demographic data, ensure resource equity,  and maintain the Secretary’s authority to enforce the law.  Keeping accountability and disaggregated data are really just requests that Congress not throw the baby out with the bathwater in reauthorization.  Mend it, don’t end it.  The last two points, however, have a lot of depth to them.

When reauthorization was being seriously debated in 2007 to 2008–the time it should have been reauthorized to begin with–a tremendous amount of focus was on how irrationally Title I dollars are distributed and how little current standards do to actually ensure comparability in resources across schools.  Most notable is the fact that teacher salaries are about 80% of schools’ budgets, but are exempted from any real dollar comparability.  It is an enormous loophole.  While we can and will debate substantive theories about how to improve educational outcomes for decades to come, equity is reality simple and should not require debate.  Racial and socioeconomic equity of resources was one of the founding pillars of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Yet, it has been increasingly lost in recent reauthorizations.  The current conversation suggests it will happen again this time.  See here for more on this point.

The last point about the Secretary’s authority is an outgrowth of the legal and political contests surrounding NCLB waivers.  As I explain here, the conditions that the Secretary imposed on NCLB waivers were either beyond his statutory authority or unconstitutional.  And legalities aside, the authority the Secretary exercised during the waiver process enraged many.   The backlash has prompted a legislative move to strip the Secretary of much of his or her power.  It has also prompted what I would call a minimization of the federal role in education, which appears to be more of an overreaction than a reasoned reaction.

One can only hope this messages do not fall on deaf ears.

This post originally appeared on, and was republished with permission.


Derek Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts.

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