Educators mark 50th anniversary of Elementary and Secondary Education Act

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Golden anniversary comes as Congress has chance to fix federal law in its reauthorization

NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia visits students at Kit Carson Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nev.

As ESEA turns 50, Congress is now deciding what a new national education law should look like. --Lily Eskelsen Garcia

The National Education Association, which represents more than 3 million educators working in our nation’s public schools, will mark the 50th anniversary of a landmark federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The law, which was signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on April 11, 1965, was the first general aid-to-education program ever adopted by Congress. It provided much-needed funding to help level the playing field for the most vulnerable students: children living in poverty, students with disabilities and English-language learners.

Earlier this week, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) released bipartisan legislation to overhaul ESEA, more commonly known now as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions, is scheduled to mark up the bill on Tuesday, April 14. NEA members across the country have worked to make their voices heard during the reauthorization process with a series of public events, teach-ins, rallies and digital engagements.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García issued the following statement:

“I was born one year after the Supreme Court of the United States issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education opinion. Nearly 10 years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was a critical cornerstone of his War on Poverty and a part of the larger civil rights movement. I’m a daughter of an immigrant, a granddaughter of a sharecropper and the first in my family to go to college. The Act provided federal resources for states to level the playing field between schools in wealthy and poor districts. It was meant to ensure all students—students like me—had access to a great public school education, no matter their ZIP code, color or creed.

“By the time I began my career as an educator, I hoped that we would soon realize the promise of equal opportunity in education for every student. But that’s not what has happened with the law—nor is it what President Johnson intended when he called on Congress to pass ESEA and said it would ‘bridge the gap between the helplessness and hope.’

“In 2002, when Congress retooled the law and gave it a different name, No Child Left Behind, it ushered in an era of education requiring rote memorization at the expense of analytical and critical thinking. The demands of high stakes testing make it impossible for educators to do what is most important: instill a love of learning in their students. Instead of raising student achievement, NCLB has perpetuated a system that delivers unequal opportunities and uneven quality to America’s students. More than ever, a student’s ZIP code dictates the education available to her.

“As ESEA turns 50, Congress is now deciding what a new national education law should look like. The question on the minds of parents and educators alike is this: Will Congress double down on the failed policies of NCLB? Or will Congress instead embrace the law’s original vision and promise, which is a public education system that promotes opportunity and excellence for all students?

“In this reauthorization, we’re looking at Congress to do more than just get rid of the bad stuff that has hurt kids. If Congress really wants an opportunity to set a new vision of shared responsibility for our public education system, a reauthorized ESEA must do three things: create more opportunities for all students to receive a quality education, no matter their ZIP code; allow more time for students to learn; ensure every student has a qualified educator who is empowered to teach and to lead. Let’s get ESEA right this time.”

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Staci Maiers
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