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Keeping Alive the Memory of an Historic Decision

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Keeping Alive the Memory of an Historic Decision

This May is an important month, a month in which we celebrate a landmark anniversary in the history of the American education system. Fifty years ago - on May 17, 1954 - the United States Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision ruled the doctrine of "separate but equal" unconstitutional, guaranteeing every American student access to the classroom.

Two years ago, right here in the Eighth Congressional District, President Bush joined Republicans and Democrats in Congress to take the next step: signing into law the No Child Left Behind Act - legislation to provide every student in the classroom the shot at a quality education.

Looking back, considerable progress has been made in educational access since the Brown decision. However, a huge gap still remains when it comes to ensuring all children actually learn. I'm sure that during the past several years you have read or heard me comment on the fact that the federal government has spent more than $300 billion on K-12 education since 1965, yet significant academic "achievement gaps" between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers still exist in key subjects such as reading and math. Consider this:

Nationally, the achievement gap between African-American and white fourth-graders in reading is 28 percentage points. And the achievement gap between Hispanic and white fourth-graders is 29 percentage points. To anyone with an interest in the state of our nation's schools, these facts are simply unacceptable.

Fifty years after Brown, we have allowed two educational systems to be created, separate and unequal. Many students - including so many right here in the Eighth District - receive a great education at high-quality public schools. By contrast, others - mostly poor and mostly minority students, including some in the Buckeye State - are written off as un-teachable and are shuffled through the system without ever acquiring basic educational skills. Essentially - despite this dismal reality - for decades, states have been permitted to accept billions of dollars per year in federal education aid while allowing scores of children to fall further and further behind.

Instead of endorsing this practice, as federal policy has for decades, the No Child Left Behind Act is ending it. Though reasonable people may have disagreements about the law, no one can deny its fundamental message: that all students - regardless of race, background, income, geography, or disability - can learn and must be given the chance to learn.

How does No Child Left Behind make sure students are learning? One key provision guarantees parents the right to know what's going on in their children's schools by giving them easy-to-read, detailed report cards on schools and school districts. These report cards are so detailed that parents will be able gauge a school district's performance in educating minority students, students with disabilities, and even students with limited English proficiency. The "sunshine" generated by these report cards will ensure that when a child is falling behind, both parents and teachers know about it and can do something before too much precious time is lost.

Like the other historic changes in American education that came before it, No Child Left Behind has its skeptics, and many have fallen for the myth that No Child Left Behind "punishes" students or schools identified by these report cards as needing help. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under the law, when students and schools are identified as needing help, they aren't labeled as "failing;" they get the extra help they need.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education this month, it's important to reflect on how far we've come in ensuring educational access for every child. But at the same time, we have to remind ourselves about how far we still have to go to fulfill the vision of those who fought for Brown. No Child Left Behind represents the next step.

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