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Civil Rights Groups Demand More Accountability in Senate ESEA Bill

A coalition of civil rights groups is demanding that the U.S. Senate beef up accountability provisions in the bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is queued up for debate.

The 36 organizations, which include The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Urban League, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, Education Trust and others, are calling for four specific changes to the bill:

  • States must be required to identify schools where all students or groups of students are not meeting goals and intervene in ways that raise achievement for students not meeting state standards.
  • States must transparently report on student groups in order to understand how all students are doing and what their needs might be. (As written, the bill does not require schools to report disaggregated data in a way that can be cross-tabulated by gender and disability status across major racial and ethnic groups, though it does require states to report disaggregated data.)
  • States must intervene to remedy disparities in access to resources between school districts, and the comparability loophole must be closed.
  • The U.S. education secretary must have sufficient authority to ensure the law is appropriately implemented and that the most vulnerable students are protected.

"We do not support the bill in its current form because, without addressing these issues, it will not fulfill its functions as a civil rights law," they wrote in a letter sent to senators Thursday morning.

Civil rights groups have been open about what they see as the bill's shortcomings for months, but the letter represents their first official request for a slate of somewhat specific alterations—alterations that if made could turn off Republicans from supporting a carefully crafted bill aimed at pleasing both sides of the aisle.

During a press call Thursday afternoon, Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president and director of policy at The Leadership Conference, said the group is hoping to revive some amendments that were offered during the education committee markup of the bill, including an accountability amendment from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that would require states to identify schools that don't meet the states' standards two years in a row. 

In addition they are hoping to add to the ESEA rewrite a proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would allow states to cross-tabulate graduation rate data; a proposal from Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii., that deals with data reporting on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; and a proposal from Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., that deals with resource equity.

Still, education policy experts noted that the requests outlined in the letter were pretty broad, perhaps a strategy meant to ensure they aren't entirely rebuked.

For example, the letter did not specify a certain percentage of schools that states must identify as low-performing, or a certain graduation rate that would label schools as dropout factories.

"They are not drawing bright lines," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the director of social policy and politics program at Third Way, a Washington think tank that seeks to find common ground on controversial policy issues. "I think lots of people would agree that we need more federal guardrails, especially around low-performing schools. There are ways to get to that, and this letter left those ways open."

Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, said on the press call that while the coalition is looking at specific legislative proposals, the group is open to working with various senators to find solutions.

"Our bottom line as a coalition is that we think it's absolutely essential that there is an obligation to act when any group of students is not moving forward over multiple years," she said. "There is interest among both Republicans and Democrats in solving this problem."

The federal K-12 overhaul is currently stalled awaiting floor debate, as the Senate is stuck on a defense appropriations bill and then will likely turn its sights toward a trans-Pacific trade deal.

"ESEA is a huge bill, and the fact that these are the only things that are still points of discussion is actually a bit of a miracle," Erickson Hatalsky added. "We are on the second-yard line in terms of substance if this is all we have left to work out. I think it's highly possible to find common ground on these issues."

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