Equal Educational Opportunity: An American Myth

I have mixed feelings about House Bill 610.  Here is a summary of the bill, in case you’re living under a rock and have not seen it:

“This bill repeals the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and limits the authority of the Department of Education (ED) such that ED is authorized only to award block grants to qualified states.

“The bill establishes an education voucher program, through which each state shall distribute block grant funds among local educational agencies (LEAs) based on the number of eligible children within each LEA’s geographical area. From these amounts, each LEA shall: (1) distribute a portion of funds to parents who elect to enroll their child in a private school or to home-school their child, and (2) do so in a manner that ensures that such payments will be used for appropriate educational expenses.

“To be eligible to receive a block grant, a state must: (1) comply with education voucher program requirements, and (2) make it lawful for parents of an eligible child to elect to enroll their child in any public or private elementary or secondary school in the state or to home-school their child.

No Hungry Kids Act

“The bill repeals a specified rule that established certain nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs. (In general, the rule requires schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals; and meet children’s nutritional needs within their caloric requirements.)”

Working from the bottom up:  I oppose abolishing the “No Kid Hungry Act”.  While I had no difficulty feeding my child during his school years, 90% of the students at his K – 12 campus qualified for the breakfast and lunch program.  I absolutely agree that a child must be fed in order to focus on school.  Our public schools need funding to insure that no empty bellies sit in school desks.

But I also think that equal education is a great American myth.  We pretend that children in high-dollar zip codes don’t get fancier buildings and newer books.  We roll our eyes when parents of disabled children press districts for greater accommodations.   Society winks behind the backs of children in Appalachia and Harlem.  Anyone who thinks that education is equal lives under that proverbial rock.

On the other hand, here is what we lose if this bill passes and #45 signs it into law, which he most certainly will do.

The bill will eliminate the Elementary and Education Act of 1965, which is the nation’s educational law and attempts to insure equal opportunity in education.   The ESSA is a comprehensive program that covers programs for struggling learners, AP classes, English as a Second Language programs, and programs for students of color including Native Americans;.  It also addresses Rural Education, Education for Students who are Homeless, School Safety, Monitoring and Compliance and Federal Accountability for these and other Programs.

For children with disabilities, the ESSA insures access to the general educational curriculum; mandates needed accommodations on assessment testing; guarantees use of the Universal Design for Learning in materials; and requires school districts to use research-based instruction and curriculum in schools, especially with students who represent groups that have been consistently under-performing or underachieving.

The ESSA also requires that states write Title I (ESSA-granted federal funds to assist students and schools in poverty) plans to address how they will improve conditions for learning including: Reducing incidents of bullying and harassment in schools; reducing overuse of punitive discipline practices; and reducing the use of aversive behavioral interventions (such as restraints and seclusion).

All of this goes away if the ESSA does.

The argument in favor of eliminating the ESSA focuses on “states rights” and the right of the individual parent to make school choices by endorsing tax vouchers for families utilizing private or parochial schools.  Thus, this attack on federal education laws suggests that instead of our national horizon insuring the closest thing to equal education for our students, we should leave that task to the states.    This will doubtless be disastrous.

The laws of states are not uniform in many areas.  Exceptions are so scarce as to be easily identified, such as the Uniform Commercial Code and the Uniform Probate Code.  If states are left to enact individual educational schemes to address equal education, our country’s children will doubtless suffer.  Only the wealthy will be able to afford quality education adapted to individual needs.  The rest of America will return to the broken buses, ancient text books, and crowded classrooms of pre-1965 ilk.

The reason we have national legislation attempting to equalize access to education lies in this disparate provision of educational opportunities through the states.  The education of children insures their productivity and the potential of economic success.  This in turn enhances the fabric of America by providing our future job force, and our future leaders, researchers, doctors, and scientists.  No one loses; everyone wins.

As with the Affordable Care Act, the ESSA has flaws.  But removing one set of regulations before replacing it with another, better scheme defeats every objective served by education.  If the separate states already had statutes in place to serve the goal of equal education, I might take a different view of the repeal of ESSA.  But they do not and likely will not.  If the only aim of repeal of this federal regulation is to allow for states to take the reins on this critical issue, then perhaps we should let them have a guide wire before letting go of the controls.

I had a long conversation with a young mother yesterday in which I asked if she knew what Congress intended to do with the educational system in our nation.  She shook her head.  This impacts you and your daughter, I cautioned.  I  need to educate myself, I guess, she replied.


Education knows no equal; and equal education knows no rival.  Congress should be expected to address and implement new solutions before removing those presently in place.  We, the people, must demand a measured approach to the enactment of all legislation.  If we do not make such a demand, then when we crawl out from under our respective rocks, fifty years of progress in the American education system will be lost.

The progress we have made does not really guarantee equal access to education in America.  But the ESSA took education fifty years closer to equal access.  Without it, we will regress.  Quality education will become a privilege accorded to the wealthy few.

And that, my friends, will not make America great.