U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 on Monday by condemning what he views as racial inequities in education in the United States.
In an address that paid tribute to the education agenda of President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) – one that entrenched the federal government’s role in an area the Constitution leaves to the states and localities – Duncan said the United States still has not reached its goal of providing equal opportunity to all young people.
“We’re not there yet when millions of children start kindergarten already too far behind simply because their parents couldn’t afford preschool,” he said. “Not when thousands of preschoolers are being suspended. And sadly, we know exactly who many of the 3-and 4-year olds often are – our young boys of color.”
Kicking off the Obama administration’s campaign to replace what he termed the “out-of-date,” “tired,” and “prescriptive” No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law – the current version of ESEA – Duncan said a new law needs to provide increased taxpayer funding and resources and to recognize “that no family should be denied preschool for their children.”
In 2012, however, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) showed that about 64 percent of the nation’s three-to-five year-olds were enrolled in nursery school that year, data that suggest most American “preschoolers” are, in fact, in school.
As for the need for more funding for yet more federal programs, the Heritage Foundation observed in March, “The federal government currently operates 45 early learning and child care programs … of which 12 have as an explicit purpose to provide early childhood education and care programs. The remaining 33 programs permit funds to be used for such initiatives.”
Also ironic is Duncan’s strong advocacy for an increased federal role in education – this time at the preschool level – because the federal government has failed in its own Head Start program, according to its own study.
In February of 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a study that found students who participated in the federal Head Start program actually fared worse, in some ways, than students who did not.
The large-scale study showed that children who participated in Head Start did worse, for example, in math and had more problems with social interaction by the third grade than children who were not in the federally funded program.
Furthermore, teacher reports provided as part of the study demonstrated strong evidence of the Head Start program having an unfavorable impact on the incidence of children’s emotional symptoms, as well as possible effects on both ability to have close relationships and positive relationships with teachers. The study concluded that, even when some positive effects of participation in Head Start were found in preschool age children, those effects disappeared once children entered early elementary school:
In terms of children’s well-being, there is also clear evidence that access to Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start. These effects, albeit modest in magnitude, were found for both age cohorts during their first year of admission to the Head Start program. However, these early effects rapidly dissipated in elementary school, with only a single impact remaining at the end of 3rd grade for children in each age cohort.
Duncan, however, said that despite racial inequities, the nation has made much progress in the area of education since 2008, still using racial equity as his barometer:
Today, a young Hispanic person is now half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be enrolled in college.
The number of black and Hispanic students taking AP exams has increased nearly five-fold. Does that mean that black and Hispanic students today are 5 times smarter than they were before? Of course not – they simply have 5 times the opportunity to demonstrate their intelligence, their desire for rigorous coursework, their work ethic, and their commitment to building positive futures for themselves. For the first time, four out of five students are completing high school on time.
And black and Hispanic college enrollment is up by more than a million students since just 2008.
Not surprisingly, Duncan gives credit to government when minority students show some sign of academic success. Of note is that, in his introductory remarks, the education secretary gave thanks “to all the educational leaders, to all the political leaders, and to members of Congress,” stating, “Thank you for what you do on a daily basis. Your talent, your time, and your commitment to give all of our nation’s children a chance in life – I can’t tell you how much that means to me personally.”
At least one black coalition leader, however, believes parents and local communities are the major factors in the battle over the achievement gap.
Last week, Dr. Deborah De Sousa Owens, education leader at the Coalition of African-American Pastors (CAAP), told Breitbart News the federal government’s intervention has not brought about what it promised to low-income, minority students.
“Neighborhood schools before integration worked well because students made important connections with the school family and their community, despite the access and equity issues of the day,” Owens observed, adding that though all students are entitled to a fair and equal education, money, quality teachers, and curriculum are not the primary elements in student achievement.
“[W]ithout strong parental and community involvement, increasing and sustaining student achievement is highly unlikely,” she said. “Students must be able to make positive connections in the school setting, community setting and, of course, at home.”
“It is not the role of the federal government to ‘govern’ what’s best for schools around the nation,” Owens asserted.
Moving forward, however, Duncan said the nation should be guided by its “ideals of fairness and justice.”
“In this year – when we estimate that the nation’s public schools have become majority-minority for the first time – equity and excellence matter more than ever,” he said.
Though in the past, ESEA has been focused on K-12 students, the Obama administration, with its calls for free community college and now free preschool, has set up a “cradle to grave” education agenda to be paid for by American taxpayers. Duncan’s reference to “our national education responsibilities” that cannot be “optional” suggest a vision of an education system controlled by the federal government’s mandates with little, if any, “options” for states and local school districts.
“This year, President Obama’s [b]udget will include $2.7 billion for increased spending on ESEA programs, including $1 billion additional just for Title I,” Duncan said. “And we will fight to make sure Congress provides more resources as part of any effort to rewrite ESEA.”