This month the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan bill designed to course-correct past attempts to fix our educational system. While the Act is far from perfect, those who care deeply about education equity and biblical justice have much to celebrate.
Designed as part of a repeal-and-replace effort directed at No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 law from which 43 states and the District of Columbia have been granted exemptions through federal waivers, the Every Student Succeeds Act is a step in the right direction.
As ambassadors for Christ called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must champion education reform that honors education equity, a natural expression of biblical justice. We stand against all forms of injustice in our nation and our communities, which when focused on education leads to an insistence on quality education for all students, regardless of zip code, income, or race. Equal access to a meaningful education honors the image of God (imago dei) in every child and offers them tools to serve God with the entirety of their minds. And since the vast majority of American students (well over 90 percent) attend public schools, Christians are wise to celebrate excellence in private and home schools while also ensuring public school excellence.
Here are three progress points that advocates of education equity can celebrate:
1. Educational power shifts back to states:
The public outcry over federal incentives encouraging states to implement specific education policies has been heard loud and clear. ESSA places restraints on the secretary of Education and other government entities from direct interference, such as the practice of incentivizing states into adopting standards or assessments. ESSA even goes so far as to limit indirect interference by prohibiting influence of conditional wavers.
States are still called to high educational standards, which Christians can support in principle and impact at the state level, but national incentives and timelines have been revamped. ESSA formally codifies that adoption of standards and assessments are solely the prerogative and responsibility of the states and not the federal government. This new legislation substantially reduces federal control over K-12 education for the first time in three decades, instead handing back decision-making power to states and school districts.
2. Marginalized children are protected and served:
Financially struggling families and English Language Learners (ELL's) are protected as ESSA insists on accountability for the education of all children. It requires pro-active action when any group falls behind and protects funds allocated to districts serving underprivileged students. This safeguard is vital for children struggling to learn the English language in addition to content.
3. Teachers and school districts are empowered:
The devoted teachers in our communities are the professionals who make the difference for students in our communities every day. This act empowers teachers to make the classroom decisions that are needed. It reduces reliance on high-stakes testing by disconnecting top-level education decisions from statewide standardized tests. And the new act provides funding for school districts to identify testing redundancies, and allows more comprehensive and tailored approaches for measuring student progress.
Those of us in the Hispanic Christian community are especially attuned to the needs of hard-working Spanish-speaking immigrants, whose children most likely attend public schools. These families are eager for their children to learn English, excel in school and contribute to their new country. We're also committed to serving the poor in the spirit of Christ. We celebrate how this new legislation will support student success for struggling families and we encourage churches to build bridges in support of local schools and students.
Resources for churches are available at no cost through the Faith & Education Coalition and our partners (such as the Raising Highly Capable Kids parent curriculum from Focus on the Family). The Body of Christ can work together to improve education for every child in every community, because every child is created in the image of God.