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Civil Rights, Disability, Education Groups Give Lukewarm Nod to ESEA Rewrite

By Alyson Klein

Well, they've finally, finally spoken.

After a couple weeks of silence, thirty-six disability, civil rights, education, and other organizations—including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—offered a measured endorsement Tuesday of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a day before the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to begin consideration of the legislation. 

And even though the statement isn't exactly a big warm bear hug for the bill, it suggests smooth sailing for the ESSA toward the president's desk, at least as far as most Democrats are concerned. (The legislation is guaranteed to face opposition from at least some Republicans, especially since the conservative group Heritage Action isn't a fan.) 

The groups clearly have some conflicted feelings about the bill, which would return power to states and districts when it comes to accountability. That means it will be incumbent upon local leaders—not, for the most part, a federal traffic cop—to ensure that students from low-income families, minority students, students in special education, and English-language learners are given access to an equitable education. 

But overall, the groups see the legislation as an improvement over the Obama administration's stop-gap solution: waivers from many of the mandates of the current version of the ESEA law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Here's a snippet from their statement:

We believe the Every Student Succeeds Act is an improvement over the waivers and is a chance to move beyond the No Child Left Behind Act for the millions of students of color, students with disabilities, and English-learner students we represent. However, the compromise that has resulted in the Every Student Succeeds Act is not the bill that we would have written. There are provisions in the proposed legislation that we believe will help remedy deep-seated disparities in our nation's schools.

That milquetoast support is a sharp contrast to the jubiliant statements from teachers' unions and advocates for school district officials, state chiefs, and governors that came out Monday. And it's no wonder that those folks are overjoyed—local control is the bill's watchword.

Still, the legislation (cheat sheet here) does include some protections for students stuck in perennially foundering schools. They include a requirement that states flag schools where so-called subgroups of students are struggling, and a call for states to intervene in schools with low graduation rates.

And, in a major reversal from the waivers, it calls for an end to so-called "supersubgroups" which allow states to combine different groups of students (including English-language learners and students in special education) into one giant category for accountability purposes. That technique really did not make civil rights groups (or former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.) very happy. 

There's a big question mark hanging over ESSA though, when it comes to whether or not the U.S. Department of Education will be able to do much to ensure that states make a serious effort to close the achievement gap. In addition to the accountability language, the bill includes a laundry list of prohibitions on the education secretary's authority.

For their part, though, state chiefs say they aren't backing down when it comes to equity, whether the federal government is around to make them or not. And it sounds like the civil rights and education groups are going to hold them to that.

"We will not let jurisdictions with millions of dollars in federal aid off the hook for failing to equitably and adequately educate all children," the groups wrote. 

There's some history behind Tuesday's lukewarm endorsement. Back in 2011, many of these same groups poured cold water on a bill to rewrite the ESEA that was arguably stronger, in some ways, than the legislation on the table now.

But since that time, there's been a serious rollback in support for a strong federal role in accountability—and it seems likely that trend could continue if the ESEA isn't given a facelift soon. After all, many of the Republicans running for president want to do away with the U.S. Department of Education once and for all

Separately, the largest of the groups, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued a statement urging lawmakers' to support the bill, citing provisions aimed at providing greater accountability for English-language learners, protections for subgroups of students, and a continued focus on annual testing and graduation rates. 

The overall statement was signed byThe Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), the Children's Defense Fund, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Democrats for Education Reform, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Easter Seals, The Education Trust, The Expectations Project, Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, MALDEF, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, the National Center on Time & Learning, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the National Disability Rights Network, the National Down Syndrome Congress, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League, the National Women's Law Center, New Leaders, PolicyLink, Southern Education Foundation, Stand for Children, TASH, Teach For America, Teach Plus, TNTP, UNCF, and United Way Worldwide.

Expect many of these groups to put out their own statements, with themes that are pretty similar to the big umbrella statement, over the next couple days. 

In fact, a handful of groups—the Business Roundtable, the National Council of La Raza, Democrats for Education Reform, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities—released a separate statement praising the bill's transparency provisions and saying they stand ready to help states and districts in their efforts to close the achievement gap. DFER also put out an individual statement. 

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