At the recent joint session of Congress, President Trump framed education as “the civil rights issue of our time.” Unfortunately, this is another empty recitation. Let me explain.
President Obama knew the importance of solving one of the most vexing and potentially calamitous issues of today: educating our children for a rapidly changing career and demographic landscape.
He chose Arne Duncan as his choice for secretary of education. Both Duncan and Obama understood the sense of urgency needed to address the underachievement of too many American students, especially low-income Latino and African-American children. Even though both of them believed in the importance of accountability, very little progress was made to close the racial achievement gap in Obama’s two terms.
It is not an easy achievement. Neither is landing on the moon, but we achieved that goal.
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2002) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015) passed Congress with bipartisan support. In 2002 and again in 2015, a majority of our congressional leaders understood the importance of holding schools accountable for the academic performance of students that are forgotten and marginalized in public schools. However, under Trump we are at the precipice of taking draconian steps to create a system steeped in local control and little federal accountability—a toxic mix of policies.
On March 8, 2017, the U.S. Senate voted to block the ESSA, which creates accountability for how states rate and improve academic results for the poorest and most marginalized students. It’s a tragically under-reported story.
In addition, the new bill precludes the secretary of education from issuing any new regulations in the future. Now more than ever, America’s lowest achieving students need the support of Secretary Betsy DeVos. And yet, her voice has been notably silent.
The coin of the realm is high quality early learning programs, especially for the most marginalized children who begin kindergarten 1.5 years behind their peers. Children from more affluent families enter kindergarten with at least two years of quality early learning experiences.
Low-income children lose out in the summer by staying at home while their wealthier counterparts participate in camps, clubs, travel and other enriching experiences. This gap persists through high school, as evidenced by a large percentage of high school graduates needing remediation in math and English when entering college. This coursework creates a huge expense we cannot afford. Early learning is the answer and the return on its investment is huge.
Quality early education in two-year doses and extended school years for poor children are essential components for addressing achievement gaps. This is where America’s most marginalized children need Secretary DeVos’ voice to be loudest; the research and data are unequivocal.
After her nomination, DeVos said: “The status quo is not acceptable. I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world. … I believe every child, no matter their zip code or their parents’ jobs, deserve access to a quality education.”
To that end we agree. But are these words as empty as Trump’s in his address to Congress?
An educated citizenry is imperative to nurture democracy. The process must be participatory. Our future workforce is in the classroom right now.
I urge Secretary DeVos to look at the impact of quality early learning and how it changes the trajectory of a child’s life. Perhaps she could present the data at her boss’ next cabinet meeting. By next year, we could have a plan for his first official State of the Union address, where a proposal could be made to fund early learning in every school district in America.
That is how America can once again shoots for the stars.