I started my career in public education in 1965—the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law. Baltimore had hired more than 600 paraprofessionals using city funds, and I was one of them. I worked in a kindergarten class and a first-grade class at Mount Royal Elementary School in one of the city’s more affluent communities. We taught the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and probably more than one editor from the Baltimore Sun. We had all the resources we needed: a well-stocked library, art, music and after-school programs.
But just a neighborhood or two over, it was a different story. The schools were starved. Buildings were in disarray. The kids didn’t have the resources or the support staff they needed to be successful. It was a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, and already we were seeing that the inequities in public education were bigger than segregation.
And then came the ESEA. It was a major step toward leveling the playing field. It funneled resources directly to starved urban districts. It ensured that students across our city, not just in the affluent parts, would have a school nurse, sports, music and more individualized instruction time thanks to newly hired paraprofessionals. It provided schools with resources to give parents the training they needed to help their kids succeed, access to GED programs, and even the chance to buy winter clothing for themselves and their children.
The ESEA was one of the most expansive federal education bills ever passed in our nation’s history. We certainly felt its impact in Baltimore. By 1968 there were more than 3,500 paraprofessionals supporting nearly every classroom and student in the city. Our city—once plagued with Jim Crow discrimination and deep inequity in our schools—got the boost that it needed to meet students where they were and put them on a path to achieving the American dream.
But today we’ve veered too far from the ESEA’s original goal. Now, thanks to No Child Left Behind, there’s too much focus on high-stakes testing and not enough on equity.
Don’t get me wrong. We need annual tests to inform parents and communities about the progress of their students. When I got my start 50 years ago, tests helped us know what was working and what supports were needed to get things working. But now these tests are being used to judge teachers and schools to the detriment of our students—especially students of color. The law that was passed so many years ago to help level the playing field has become one of the hurdles that our most underresourced schools must overcome.
Take examples like Chicago and Philadelphia, where high-stakes tests and deep budget cuts have led to mass school closings. In both cities, more than 90 percent of the students at the schools affected are African-American and low-income.
As our Congress gears up to reauthorize the ESEA, let’s take a moment to remember why the law was created. The ESEA was a remedy for inequity. Today, half of public school children are low-income. Segregation persists. Budget cuts deepen. Once again, we need a remedy.
The reauthorization of the ESEA gives us an opportunity to both get back to our roots and look to the future. We need a law that will give parents and communities the information they need, hold schools accountable and provide what’s needed for those who are struggling. We need a law with big ideas. Community schools. Literacy programs. More support for teachers and paraprofessionals. We need a law that’s going to make such a great transformation that 50 years from now, a new educator from Baltimore will be writing about its impact.
This much was clear to me when I was first starting out: All kids deserve a high-quality public education. It shouldn’t matter if their dad is a doctor or their mom is a restaurant worker. It shouldn’t matter if they are black or white, rich or poor. It shouldn’t matter what zip code they live in. The ESEA helped us reclaim the promise of public education once. And I believe it could do it again.
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Lorretta Johnson is secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. Follow her on Twitter.