Who says that lawmakers can’t set aside differences, find common ground, and do the right thing for our country? Key members of the House and Senate recently proved it’s possible with a bipartisan agreement on long-overdue legislation to update the federal government’s largest K–12 education program. When signed into law, the revamped Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will reassert our nation’s commitment to provide a quality education for all students and make strides toward ensuring equality of opportunity in America.
While the bill is not perfect—it could have gone further on accountability—it represents the spirit of compromise necessary to advance big priorities in a divided government. It balances the interests of those who rely on a well-educated workforce and believe in real accountability as well as those who want less federal control and more state and local flexibility.
The last reauthorization of ESEA, better known as No Child Left Behind, called for higher standards and greater accountability and placed a stronger emphasis on improving education for at-risk students and groups. As a result, our nation’s graduation rate is at an all-time high, minority students have made significant improvements in academic achievement, and college enrollment is on the rise.
Despite these gains, many students still risk falling through the cracks. For example, the 2015 National Assessment for Educational Progress finds that among African-American students, only 18% of 4th graders and 16% of 8th graders are proficient in reading. In the same groups, just 19% and 13%, respectively, are proficient in math. Almost half of those who do go to college require remedial classes. And nearly one in five young African-Americans are unemployed.
An updated and improved ESEA will continue to drive progress for all students. Throughout the debate, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has consistently pushed for several essential principals: high-quality standards and annual assessments; transparency of student outcomes and school performance; accountability for the academic achievement of all students; consequences for low-performing schools; and more choices for families. The bipartisan agreement gets a passing grade from the Chamber in each of these areas. But for it to be effective, strong systems must be put in place at the state and local levels. The business community will work with states and districts to get it right.
Let’s never forget that education is the key to opportunity. At every level of government, in our schools, and among all the stakeholders, we must embrace an ethic of constructive change and preserve the American promise for all students.