America’s first black president has signed the Every Student Succeeds Act legislation that many see as a partial retreat on his strong support for school reform. The new law diminishes the Federal role in education and gives the states more authority on how they assess students, meet goals, evaluate teachers, and address failing schools.

While people from wildly different camps can claim some victory and some loss in this “bipartisan” overhaul of No Child Left Behind, I mourn its passing and fear what it signals.

After years defined by intense school reform efforts that rightfully sought to amplify the needs of America’s forgotten children, and to remake education so that it would do better by the least of them, it looks like the equity party is over. Opposition was simmering for years and now has boiled over. The drive to make schools accountable pissed off basically everyone with a material interest in the system remaining as is. The reform insurgency couldn’t last forever.

State and district education leaders hated accountability because it put a spotlight on their inability to produce under pressure. Their systems are big, inefficient labyrinths that are saddled by collective bargaining restraints, and are more positioned to repel talented human capital rather than attract it.

Teachers complained endlessly through their unions that holding them accountable for outcomes with students who have an unfortunate lack of affluent college educated white parents is unfair. Their biggest fear in life is being evaluated properly and having student outcomes be a part of their evaluations. Teaching is easier if student learning isn’t a factor.

Suburban parents with well off children have mobilized around an accusation that all this achievement gap fever overtook their tony public schools. Reform focused too much on needy kids who are behind academically, and too little on those who are economically, genetically, and racially gifted. All these intrusive attempts to raise the floor of education has lowered its ceiling, trapping their precious little ones in joyless test mills that won’t prepare them for lives as rulers of an unequal universe. Nothing kills a project faster than the idea it won’t re-privilege America’s white children.

Republicans and other varieties of liberty loving conservatives enamored with Ayn Randian social darwinism finally realized we can’t hold education accountable for their $600 billion in government funding if it means we expect them to defeat Charles Murray’s famous Bell Curve. Yes, we must make sure government is responsible for every dollar we give it, but let’s be reasonable about the low potential of minorities – right?

All of these actors – state officials, teachers and their unions, privileged parents, and racial republicans – taken together have merged into the perfect revolt in defense of the old education blot. It’s a remarkable leaderless resistance that is something akin to an institutional Norton Antivirus. It prevents education’s geek squad from installing new software to change the operating system and rid it of old programs like racism, inequity, and inefficiency. It does wild things like inspire white liberals to make a ‘states rights’ argument for education, and radical republicans to support a money-for-nothing scheme in government social programs.

And thus, we are perpetually stuck with Windows XP lamenting the issues of Y2K.

The one group that should be watching this most – the civil rights community – is in the game, but not enough. Major civil rights organizations have been solid in their support for maintaining the critical provisions of NCLB like annual testing and the expectation that states intervene when schools are disasters. They have written public letters, made public announcements, and lobbied hard for elected leaders to keep their religion on school reform and social justice. No group better understands the implications of a nation where less than 1 in 5 black students is proficient in reading or math.

Give them credit for fighting for forward progress. Their efforts are laudable, but they fall short; partially because they are outmanned and overwhelmed by the white backlash against educational justice, and partially because their efforts are too little, too late, without enough organization or muscle. Ask yourself, who is the most visible black or brown leader openly supporting school reform with an open throat and straight back?

Get back to me on that one.

Given this new environment where white resistance to accountability for results in education, specifically for children left behind, I think the NAACP is right to say “in order for the ESSA to truly be a civil rights law, we must remain vigilant to ensure that the Administration uses its remaining authority to issue timely and strong regulations and guidance to help states implement the law.”

We have to be “vigilant” and then some. The fight to make schools better for our kids is always fragile and can be rolled back at anytime. We better dig in and be ready to defend policies that tell us when the system is failing to deliver for our kids, and to demand action when that failure persists too long. And we better push our leaders to be much stronger, more visible, and far louder than they have been this last time around.

Stay woke people.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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