Just over 50 years ago, in response to a national poverty rate of almost 20 percent, President Johnson introduced legislation known as the “war on poverty.” A central piece was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which emphasized equal access to educational opportunity and accountability for meeting equity goals and mandated funds to support them. As President Johnson stated when he signed the bill into law, “with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.”
ESEA has been a powerful tool for advancing equitable education for vulnerable populations, including students who live in poverty, who are learning English and who are members of groups that have experienced historical discrimination. The federal government played a strong role in prodding states to care for these children. This investment, in the words of President Johnson, would provide a “passport from poverty.”
The ESEA has been through several reauthorizations and revisions, but equity has always been its core purpose, even when the methods caused debate. As President George W. Bush stated when the ESEA was reborn as the No Child Left Behind Act, the purpose was to ensure that “every single child, regardless of where they live, how they’re raised, the income level of their family, every child receive a first-class education.”
In December 2015, 50 years after ESEA became law, President Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind. All 50 states have worked to come up with new plans to meet the new law’s requirements. With the help of thousands of stakeholders, the Vermont Agency of Education created our draft plan, rooted in our values and the Vermont Education Quality Standards. The draft is currently posted on the agency website for review.
NCLB remains a civil rights law. It focuses attention and funds on our most vulnerable children – a goal unequivocally championed by Gov. Phill Scott in his inaugural address. The development of this plan gave Vermonters an opportunity to reflect on how well we serve our most vulnerable students. While Vermont consistently ranks well nationally and internationally, we also have substantial equity gaps and room to grow.
Early intervention and supports for vulnerable children will improve learning for all students by reducing disruptions and reducing diversion of resources to remediation. Our economic and civic well being hinges upon every student leaving school with the skills, habits and understandings they need to fully participate in our communities.
We know funding matters. Our plan will target federal investments to help all students thrive in school and add to Vermont’s long-term economic vitality. A pre-kindergarten child of a single parent in an entry-level job may need full-day pre-kindergarten, not just 10 hours of care, and perhaps federally funded summer programming as well. A child who arrives in Vermont speaking limited English and whose education in a refugee camp was inconsistent may need support to learn a new culture and language so they can thrive and become a productive adult.
But money alone is not sufficient. Spending must consistent with our state vision for a robust and well-rounded education. Therefore, our plan reflects our commitment to personalizing the education of all students, as expressed in Vermont’s Education Quality Standards. We expect schools to understand students’ unique needs and goals and to craft an educational experience that prepares all students for their desired career or college outcome.
Ultimately, the state’s role is to protect and support our most vulnerable children, who do not choose their circumstances. ESSA provides us an opportunity to identify schools where students are not performing as well as we would like. The law also provides tools to identify which schools are succeeding in narrowing gaps, so we can learn from their successes and continuously improve learning across the state. Our focus is on continuous improvement, because we know our schools, like the agency, can always do better.
Rebecca Holcombe is the Vermont secretary of education.