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50 Years Later: Where We Stand With Education

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50 Years Later: Where we stand with education

May 17, 2004 marks the 50th Anniversary of one of the most famous and monumental Supreme Court decisions in American history: the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954, which struck down legalized segregation in America's schools. The doctrine of "separate but equal" was dismantled in hope that integration would close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Brown vs. Board of Education gave every child a seat in the classroom and a promise of an equal education.

Despite gradual integration over the next decades, an achievement gap persisted. In 1994, in an effort to address this gap, Congress passed, and the President signed, the Improving America's Schools Act. However, when the law came up for reauthorization in 2001, only 11 states were in compliance, because it lacked accountability mechanisms. It was a law without teeth in the face of entrenched opposition on the ground.

Fifty years after the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision, America is taking important new steps to make good on the promise of an equal education. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly, and was signed into law in 2002.

Following through on NCLBA, the President's budget for fiscal year 2005 calls for $96 million to Idaho alone to help implement reforms under the law. The President's '05 budget increases federal education funding in Idaho to $494.2 million-56 percent more than when he took office.

I was happy to be one of its supporters in the Senate, because the NCLBA contained accountability measures to ensure compliance, while providing the flexibility states and school districts need to form solutions that address their unique circumstances.

From the day it was passed, there has been criticism of the NCLBA: some criticize its demands on teachers, students and local governments. In my view, it isn't unreasonable for Americans to expect that their children are able to read at a fourth grade level when they are in the fourth grade, or at an eighth grade level when they are in the eighth grade. Their math skills should be up to par as well.

This law gives parents more options when their children's schools are failing. Teachers must be proficient in the subjects they teach. States taking federal education dollars must show real, tangible results. That is not an unfunded mandate; that is a contract.

We cannot allow children to be passed from grade to grade. If a teacher believes a child has not mastered the skills to advance, that evaluation should not be overruled in favor of social advancement. Many educators know that learning and mastery of subjects give children a sense of pride in accomplishment, and instill in them the desire to learn, reason and succeed that will stay with them for life.

Now, in just a short time, NCLBA is helping schools produce results. This March, the Council of Great City Schools announced that the achievement gap in math and reading between African American children and white children, and between Hispanics and whites, is narrowing. Another study showed many children who transferred from failing schools to higher performing schools under NCLBA averaged an eight percent greater learning gain in reading and math than the national average. This kind of progress is not isolated and is not an accident.

Our children are proving they can learn; in too many ways and too many parts of the country, our education system was failing them. NCLBA has begun to fix that, but like anything in life, there is always resistance to change.

Recently, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed two resolutions, both honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Brown vs. Board decision. I can think of no better way to celebrate that event than the way we are now doing: by fulfilling the promise made fifty years ago, to provide each child the tools to realize all the potential America has to offer.

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