Your Take: Bill a Threat to Poor Students

A below-the-radar measure would allow billions aimed at educating poor kids to be diverted.

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While some of the gridlock among policymakers today can be chalked up to principled differences in political philosophy, some political stalemates are the result of policies that defy common sense. This most often happens when politicians ignore basic realities in order to further their own ideologies. This behavior is frustrating in any instance but is particularly galling when the needs of kids are involved.

The latest example of this phenomenon is a bill deceptively named the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act. A product of the Republican stronghold on the House Education Committee, the bill is less about "flexibility" than it is a conscious attempt to dismantle many of the rules within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that direct federal funding to groups of disadvantaged students. ESEA was reauthorized under the name No Child Left Behind in 2002.

Originally enacted in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement, ESEA is the landmark education law championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the War on Poverty to "bridge the gap between helplessness and hope" for millions of educationally deprived children. The law was designed not only to address the needs of individual poor children but also to address the impact of concentrated poverty on children's opportunity to learn.

In every update, or reauthorization, of ESEA since its adoption, Congress not only has maintained its key provisions but has also undertaken bipartisan efforts to add measures to ensure that low-income children (many of whom are children of color) received the support they needed to achieve in school. For example, over the years Congress has added specific funding for disabled children, bilingual education programs, Native American children and others.

But the so-called Funding Flexibility Act could change all this.

If passed into law, the bill would mark the first time that a major amendment to ESEA took steps backward instead of forward. Under the guise of "flexibility," the bill would eviscerate ESEA's anti-poverty mandate by allowing states and school districts to siphon off billions of dollars in federal education aid intended to be used for poor children.

House Education Committee Chairman John Kline has hinted, for example, that some district officials would rather use funds intended for English-language learners to instead "upgrade computers." The great anti-poverty and civil rights legislation would become one huge block grant subject to the political whims of state and local leaders.

By threatening the funding and programs for disadvantaged students, the bill not only jeopardizes Congress' bipartisan legacy of leadership in education policy but also ignores at least two basic realities.

First, decades of research (pdf) demonstrate that children living in poverty face obstacles to learning that must be addressed in order to level the playing field (pdf). And second, what states and school districts need most in times of fiscal crisis and faltering academic achievement is not "flexibility" in how to use limited money but greater investments and support overall.

This bill will not help school districts or students. Worse yet, the bill ignores the high rate of return on investments made in providing a quality education to poor students. Despite these realities, the bill received unanimous support from House Republicans while receiving universal condemnation from the civil rights community. Once again, political ideology reigned over common sense.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM