Warren hails civil rights legacy of education law
Says it’s crucial that Every Student Succeeds Act maintain the federal commitment to vulnerable children
WHILE IT’S EASY to get caught up in the details and debates over mandated testing regimens and teacher evaluation policies, the federal education law that stirred such backlash for more than a decade until it was replaced last year is one of the legislative pillars of the civil rights gains of the 1960s.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose first job after college was as a special needs instructor for young children and who went on to teach aspiring lawyers at Harvard Law School, was in full history lesson mode today as she drew connections between the federal government’s main education law and the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s.
In a speech Monday morning at an education symposium at Clark University, Warren praised the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the deeply unpopular No Child Left Behind law of 2002. But she used the powerful history behind the law to explain, in the most detailed remarks she has offered to date, why she was part of an effort last year in Congress to insist on provisions in the new law designed to protect the interests of poor and minority children.
The new law has sent billions of dollars over the last 50 years to districts educating poorer children. But the new testing requirements and other provisions of its reauthorization in No Child Left Behind in 2002 – the bipartisan pride of Sen. Ted Kennedy and President George W. Bush – created a strong backlash against federal involvement in schools.
Congressional leaders were at loggerheads for years over the terms of a rewrite of the law, but began to make progress last year. Versions of the law initially passed by the House and Senate, however, both left out accountability provisions requiring that districts intervene in low-performing schools, a hallmark of the No Child law.
When an amendment to include such a provision for struggling schools and for high schools with high dropout rates failed, Warren was one of just three Democrats – with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut – to vote against the Senate version.
As unpopular as the No Child law was, said Warren, “It was very important to me, very important for the Obama administration, and very important for some of my Democratic colleagues in the Congress that we replace it with a bill that is true to its roots and that serves the kids who need it most.”
“There were times when I felt like the skunk at the picnic,” she said in response to a question following her speech.
Explaining her opposition to the initial bill, she said it “lacked even the minimum safeguards to ensure that the states would use federal funds in the right places.”
“The final bill is a whole, whole, whole lot better than the bill they started out with,” said Warren.
The law still requires annual math and English testing for all students in grades 3-8 and once during high school, but it gives states much more leeway than the No Child law over what to do with chronically low-performing schools. It mandates that they devise improvement plans for such schools, but leaves the details of those plans to states and districts.
The new law also requires that districts take steps to address high schools where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate, a mandate that came through an amendment Warren cosponsored with Booker.
She also pointed to an amendment she pushed with “another Cory,” Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, which ensures that schools report disaggregated data on achievement results for student subgroups, such as lower-income students with special needs, Latino girls, or black boys.
Warren spoke pointedly about the deep inequities that have plagued US education, particularly those that faced blacks in the South during the civil rights era. “Racism ran deep and its hold was strong,” she said.
She said the federal government was often the only entity standing between black students and those who would deny them access to a decent education.
Sometimes that was literally the case.
Warren cited the famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “The Problem We All Live With.” It depicts six-year-old Ruby Bridges, escorted by US marshals, as she became the first black student to attend a previously all-white school in Louisiana when she enrolled at a New Orleans elementary school in 1960.
“Ruby is the star of this painting, but the federal officials, with their heads cropped out of the frame are flanking young Ruby to protect her right to a decent education,” said Warren. “They are a reminder that we move forward together. When state and local governments blocked Ruby, the federal government was there for her.”
Five years later, said Warren, in signing the landmark new federal education law in 1965, President Johnson declared that “education is the only valid passport from poverty” and said “no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.”
Recognition of that high-minded role of the federal government – whether literally safeguarding young Ruby Bridges or ensuring funding and accountability in needy districts — has often been lost in recent years during the battle over what many saw as an overly heavy hand from Washington.
But Warren said federal resources “coupled with strong federal accountability for serving historically marginalized groups of kids is still at the heart of this education law.”
A coalition of leading civil rights groups spoke out strongly against the early versions of the initially passed by the House and Senate last year. They said the final version signed by President Obama in December was a “significant improvement,” but still expressed disappointment in the federal retreat that it represented.Asked following her speech about worries that poor and minority students may not be well served by the new law, Warren said, “I do have concerns.”
She said the bill that was passed “was very much improved from the original version. There is now some accountability in it, and there will be robust data gathering that helps expose inequality in the education system. Both of those are critical. But it’s going to take real energy to make sure that the promise of this bill is fulfilled for our most vulnerable children.”