An essential component of the American success story is the value we, as a nation, have placed on education for all citizens. As early as April 23, 1635, the Boston Public Latin School, the first public school in America, was founded.[i]
Our founding fathers understood the value of education in nation building. John Adams expressed his view on the value of education in his 1776 work entitled, “Thoughts on Government.”[ii] “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”
In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.” [iii]
Some other turning points in our educational history include two important segregation cases. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson permitted “separate but equal” education for blacks and whites. In 1954, the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision declared that segregation violated the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause. Schools were not immediately desegregated but this was a large factor in upcoming civil rights efforts.[iv]
The next improvements in education resulted from efforts by President Lyndon Johnson who signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. The bill was one part of his “War on Poverty.”[v] The bill was the first federal effort to provide financial support to local schools serving concentrations of low-income families. ESEA was developed to address inequalities. In this case, it was established that children from low-income homes required more educational services that children from affluent homes.
The 2002 renewal of the ESEA during the President George W. Bush administration brought about important changes and renamed the act the “No Child Left Behind Act.”[vi] For the first time, data was public and clear that not all of our children were learning. The achievement gap for low-income and minority students was exposed in a way that schools had not acknowledged prior to this update of the law.
Currently, Congress is working to craft a long overdue renewal of ESEA. Efforts for a bipartisan agreement are progressing led by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.[vii] One of the most critical details is maintenance of disaggregated reporting requirements. This was an innovation of the 2001 renewal and it’s essential for it to be carried forward in this new renewal. It’s the best way for the public to know if all children are receiving equitable educations.
On this anniversary of that first public school, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families calls for increased commitment to public education. In our recent publication reviewing Arkansas Educational progress since Lake View we noted that “Equity does not mean equal. It will take additional resources in some districts to secure equitable opportunities for all students.”[viii] We have joined with organizations committed to improving education for all Arkansans including the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign. We urge you to work with us to improve education in Arkansas.
We are proud to join with Arkansas’s new Education Commissioner Johnny Key who stated, “Since the Lake View ruling, we’ve been talking about educational adequacy. We need to start talking about excellence.”[ix] We couldn’t agree more. We would expand on that statement to add, education excellence meeting the needs of all students.
[ix] Talk Business and Politics. April 12, 2015. Interview of Commissioner of Johnny Key by Roby Brock. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpAh27uINDw&feature=player_embedded