Mattilyn Gonzalez is a thriving student, who has earned straight A’s and a spot in an accelerated learning program at her middle school. Her parents, Orlando and Celine Gonzalez, trace that success back to a strong preschool program – so they were determined that their second daughter, Arianna, would get the same opportunities.
But when Celine lost her job as a retail bank manager, the Gonzalez family could no longer afford the $720 per month for Arianna to attend preschool. Fortunately, Arianna was able to attend, thanks to Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), a nonprofit supported by a federal early learning challenge grant to expand high-quality preschool opportunities. Today, Arianna reads ahead of grade level, and recently earned the title “Star Student of the Month.”
These are the kinds of opportunities every child in this country deserves – because quality preschool has been proven to help children get on a path to success, not just in school, but in life. Unfortunately, efforts to expand preschool and other educational opportunities could be at risk, amid a debate over renewing America’s most important education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
Expanding opportunity is a core priority for the Obama administration.
This week, President Obama released his budget, which includes the Preschool for All proposal, investing $75 billion over 10 years to provide high-quality preschool programs for all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families in every state. The budget also includes more than a $600 million increase for grants to encourage states to expand access to high-quality preschool.
And expanding opportunity is essential to our aims for a responsible reauthorization of the ESEA law.
ESEA stands as America’s statement that a high-quality education for every single child is a national interest, and a civil right. The law has boosted funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods, put books in libraries, and helped ensure that minorities, students with disabilities, those learning English, those living in poverty, and others who have struggled would not slip through the cracks. While the attention NCLB brought to the needs of vulnerable student groups was valuable, its prescriptive and punitive interventions have left it reviled by educators.
Since then, and especially over the last 15 years, amid a bipartisan agreement to focus strongly on students’ learning, progress has been significant. Since 2000, high school graduation rates, once stagnant, rose almost 10 percentage points, to an all-time high. A young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be in college. Just since 2008, there are a million more black and Hispanic students in college.
These are meaningful steps toward the day every single child in this country – whether she woke up in a homeless shelter or a migrant laborers’ camp or a leafy suburb – has access to a solid education.
Yet Republicans in Congress have released a discussion draft of an ESEA bill that should worry anyone who believes that this entire nation has an interest in the quality of children’s education.
Few would question that No Child Left Behind – the most recent version of ESEA – needs to be replaced. While the attention NCLB brought to the needs of vulnerable student groups was valuable, its prescriptive and punitive interventions have left it reviled by educators. It’s time for a new law.
“Republicans in Congress have released a discussion draft of an ESEA bill that should worry anyone who believes that this entire nation has an interest in the quality of children’s education.”
Recently, I laid out core ideas for a new law that ensures real opportunity. A reauthorized law must expand access to quality preschool so that families all across the country like the Gonzalezes can be assured that their children have every chance for a strong start in school and in life.
Early education is an area that enjoys widespread support from Republican and Democratic leaders alike. Law enforcement officials, members of the clergy, military leaders, CEOs, parents, and educators almost universally agree that investing in early childhood education is a vital step toward securing the future success of our children and our nation. And the unmet demand for high-quality early learning is enormous. Here in Los Angeles County alone, there are more than 33,000 four-year olds who do not have any access to preschool.
A new law also must expand support and funding for schools and teachers. President Obama’s budget will call for $2.7 billion in new funding for ESEA, with offsets to ensure we don’t go back to taxpayers for a dime.
It must help to modernize teaching, through improved supports and preparation. And it must continue to enable parents, educators and communities to know what progress students are making – and ensure that where students are falling behind, and where schools fail students year after year, improvement will happen.
Knowing what progress students are making, in a useful way, means states need an annual statewide assessment. But we must ensure that the tests – and test preparation – don’t take excessive time away from classroom instruction. Great teaching, not test prep, is what engages students, and what leads to higher achievement.
There are a few questions we must ask ourselves as we decide the fate of this country’s education law – and our children’s educational opportunities.
Should we do more to ensure that all families have access to quality preschool? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”
After years of progress, do we need statewide indicators of what progress all students are making each year – as the nation’s chief state school officers, and many civil rights organizations have asked? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”
Should funds intended for high-poverty schools actually go to those schools? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”
Should this country support innovations by educators at the local level that improve education for our young people? The Republican plan says, “It’s optional.”
We cannot afford to replace “the fierce urgency of now” with the soft bigotry of “It’s optional.”
I respect my Republican colleagues deeply, and their care for this country’s children is real. So I am optimistic about reaching bipartisan agreement on a bill that holds true to the promise of real opportunity.
In making choices for our children’s future, we will decide who we are as a nation. For the sake of our children, our communities, and our country, let’s make the right choice.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education. Information about ESEA is available at ed.gov/esea.
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