The National Urban League, UnidosUS, The Education Trust, and the Alliance for Excellent Education brought together education policy leaders and community advocates from the across the country for a conversation around the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the implications for historically underserved students.

As the Department of Education has given the stamp of approval for ESSA plans in almost all 50 states, education policy leaders and community advocates are concerned that the pathways toward equity as being threatened.

“In many respects, I feel like we’ve come a long way, but there’s no question in my mind that today we have much more to do when it comes to advancing the educational achievement of our children, particularly in our most vulnerable populations.” said Janet Murguia, President of UnidosUS. “Too many of our schools are failing our kids and it’s time for us to come together to create collective strategies that work for our communities.”

The joint convening, held on June 19th, brought together leaders from intersections across the civil rights and education space. John B. King, President and CEO of The Education Trust and former United States Secretary of Education believes that states have an opportunity to support students in lower performing groups, but has concerns around whether anything will be done to address their needs.

“One thing that states and districts specifically can do as they develop their plans, is identify schools and populations that are low performing and measure what has changed since the law has been enacted,” said King. “The question is whether states will create new opportunities for these students to achieve or will they ask districts to submit plans and do nothing. Thankfully the law today has civil rights guardrails and communities have right to organize and demand change.”

Marc H. Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, sees an opportunity with the upcoming Congressional and gubernatorial elections to shape the law.

“In January, we’ll have new governors and a change in Congress, we have to think strategically about what that will mean for our issues and what we want this new leadership to focus on with regards to education,” said Morial. “We have to be prepared for the future, today’s status quo shouldn’t be tomorrow’s status quo.”

Bob Wise, President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Governor of West Virginia, pointed out that we have to be intentional about differentiating between resource allocation and equity.

“We need to talk about inputs and look forward to say what we want low performing schools to look like in the next three years, and what do we want to see in them,” said Wise. “Thinking through how we can help these schools intentionally under ESSA is crucial. I’m a proponent of personalized learning, but it’s more likely that the best-resourced schools will have healthier applications and outcomes. When we talk about applying resources like personalized learning and technology, it can be wonderful, but if one school uses these tools to increase student outcomes and the other uses them for remediation, that’s not equity.”

The convening closed with a panel of community advocates from Buffalo, NY, Miami, FL and Baltimore, MD, who shared challenges and opportunities about ESSA from a state perspective through their work on the ground.

Sam Radford, a member of the District Parent Coordinating Council from Buffalo, said that institutional barriers are threatening the children in his city.

“Our education system has become more of an employment system, where we’re more concerned about the employment of our teachers than the education of our children,” said Radford. “We need our schools to offer our kids courses that prepare them for college and the professional careers they aspire to.”

J. Howard Henderson, President of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, echoed the need for an educator-led focus on student achievement in his community.

“The biggest problem I see is the expectations of our students from our teachers,” said Henderson. “The achievement gap in Baltimore has not diminished, our graduation rate is lower than the state average and less than half of our students go onto higher education. We want to include the word race in the definition of equity because it is coordinated, but we’ve been getting pushback.”

Alejandra Rondon, Florida UnidosUS Organizer, Civic Engagement, said that convenings like this help provide the information and community she needs to push her agenda forward.

“I think your principle around stakeholder engagement is crucial, especially in states like Florida that don’t want to identify English Learners as a subgroup, because the work falls on the shoulders of policymakers, but it impacts us directly,” said Rondon. “Many small advocacy groups lack the materials and communications skillsets to produce things like this, so meetings where our national partners convene and share information help.”

For more information on our six principles, check out this document.