Opinion

ESEA Opinion: When Will Federal Law Place Kids Above Special Interests?

By Ben Austin | July 14, 2015

After years of false starts, Congress is finally revamping America’s broken federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known to most of us as No Child Left Behind.  However, in the midst of reimagining public education for the 21st Century, some beltway politicians and special interest groups seem to have overlooked the most important aspect of education: children.
While the Senate is currently considering dozens of amendments addressing “volunteerism,” “financial literacy,” and other worthwhile but ancillary issues, nobody has offered an amendment declaring that the purpose of American public education is to serve the interests of children. 
Most parents and voters probably believe that federal law already elevates children above all other interests because that is so basic.  Why else would America spend over half a trillion dollars per year on public education?  But shockingly, nowhere in the thousands of pages of federal law does it declare anywhere that the purpose of public education is to serve children.  More important, nowhere in federal law does it empower parents to hold the bureaucracy accountable when it fails their children.
Unfortunately, American public education has largely been captured by adult special interests. When I served on the California State Board of Education, a phalanx of special interests monopolized the front row of every meeting. There was a seat for representatives of teachers unions, charter schools, textbooks, and administrator unions.  The only empty chair was the smallest.  Beautifully decorated with rainbows, or sparkles, or unicorns, or rocket ships.  But it’s always empty. Because it’s the seat for the kids lobby. 
In response, parents are organizing to take back their schools for their kids and their communities.  In California, nine brave families brought a civil rights lawsuit against the state to force the education system to serve the interests of their children.  They claimed in Vergara v. California that California’s laws governing teacher tenure, teacher dismissal, and teacher layoffs were so harmful to children that they violated their constitutional right to a quality education.  Amazingly, they won.  This landmark decision is being appealed by the defenders of the status quo.  Seven brave families filed a similar civil rights lawsuit in New York, which is currently proceeding.
Because of a prior landmark state Supreme Court decision, all California children already enjoy a vital constitutional right to equality of funding.  Now Vergara builds upon that right by empowering parents and children with a transformative new right to quality of instruction.  The parents and children of California now have a right to have the law on their side when it comes to public schools.  The parents and children of New York are fighting for that same basic right.
While parents have made historic strides with civil rights lawsuits and community organizing, the burden of taking on some of the most powerful and entrenched special interests in the nation should not fall solely on parents, many of whom are low-income and even undocumented.  This is why we elect leaders: to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, especially America’s children.
There are, and always have been, good and courageous public servants in our nation’s capital working hard every day to make our country better and keep our nation safe.  I have had the privilege to know and work with many from both sides of the aisle.  But thus far in this great ESEA debate about the future of American public education in the 21st Century, no senator from either party has embraced the simple but sadly radical principle that the interests of our children must always come first.  Period.  Hard stop.  No fine print.
As Congress reauthorizes ESEA, it should amend the law to state what is patently obvious to every parent in America: the purpose of public education must be to serve children. And it should empower America’s parents – whose only interests are children – to hold the bureaucracy accountable.
A kids-first agenda can chart a new course out of the false choices of the past that have helped contribute to today’s broken status quo: charter schools vs. district schools; education reformers vs. teachers unions; Democrats vs. Republicans.  For a parent trapped in a failing school trapped inside a failing bureaucracy, 20th Century ideological divides matter little.  Parents just want schools that work for our kids.
Americans must demand more from our leaders than lowest common denominator politics.  America’s children, and my own children who attend our neighborhood public school, deserve the best our nation has to offer – not the scraps that fall from the table after a special interest feeding frenzy.
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