WASHINGTON – House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer addressed the Committee for Education Funding regarding the importance of federal investment in the No Child Left Behind Act today at the National Press Club. Hoyer encouraged members of the Committee, which is the nation’s largest education coalition, to support the policies and goals of the landmark education legislation despite the challenges that it entails. Attached below is his statement as prepared for delivery:
“I want to thank you for inviting me to be here today to speak about the importance of a strong federal role in education investment.
“At first glance, this is a really easy speech for me. I have been a federal appropriator for more than 22 years, and have always been an unapologetic advocate for federal investment – not only in education, but also in health care and other crucial priorities. In fact, I have worked with many of you in this room in advocating for federal funding of key education programs – from “zero–to–three” to K-12 to post-secondary education.
“On a personal level, I also know how blessed I am to have received a terrific education – from elementary and high school, to college and law school – and, having served on three college boards, I have tried my best to ensure that the next generation gets even better opportunities.
“I take President Kennedy’s words to heart: “education is the mainspring of our economic and social progress. It is the highest expression of achievement in our society, ennobling and enriching human life.”
“But while you and I agree that public education is critical to our nation, the fact of the matter is that generous funding for education is only possible to the extent that the public supports and demands such funding. In a world of scarce federal dollars, the American public has every right to demand a return on its investment. And those of us who are advocates for public education simply have to be able to explain why this investment is so crucial.
“Front and center in this debate today are the No Child Left Behind Act and the issue of publicly funded vouchers.
“The No Child Left Behind Act handed this Administration one of its few bipartisan domestic policy achievements. Democrats and Republicans forged a bill that called for a larger and more targeted investment in education in return for greater accountability.
“’Our schools will have greater resources to help meet those goals,’ President Bush promised when he signed the act into law in January 2002. Democrats were not dragooned into accepting accountability. Congressman Miller and Senator Kennedy, together with a critical mass of House and Senate Democrats, were leaders on this front.
“Sandy Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers said ‘the law is built around goals we’ve long supported: high academic standards and achievement; eradicating achievement gaps between the have and have nots; making sure every teacher in every school is qualified; and yes, accountability.’”
“All of us were keenly aware of the policy and fiscal challenges that this legislation would pose to our state and local educators. But here’s what we did not anticipate: that George W. Bush and Congressional Republicans would renege on the funding commitments contained in this bill virtually before the president’s signature on it was dry.
“It reminds me of what President Reagan did shortly after releasing ‘a nation at risk.’ Did he propose increases in education funding to address deficiencies? Absolutely not! He actually proposed that it be slashed. As many of you know, the budget submitted by President Bush and the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill passed by the House in July would under-fund No Child Left Behind by some $8 billion this year alone. In fact, the Labor-HHS-Education bill failed to even meet the funding levels contained in the House GOP’s own budget resolution, under-funding Title I by $334 million and IDEA by $1.2 billion.
“I am proud that every House Democrat – from the most liberal to the most conservative – opposed that legislation. And I want to extend my thanks to CEF and all of its members for your hard work on that bill.
“However, despite the Republicans’ broken promises on No Child Left Behind, I have not come here today to sound the bugle of retreat on the goals and policies that inspired this landmark act. And I urge you to continue to support them.
“Why? Because accountability for the achievement of low-income children and minorities must not be subject to Washington budget games. And the credibility of each organization in this room – and of Congressional Democrats – rests on the values outlined in this legislation.
“Why? Because, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 38% of fourth-graders are “below basic” in reading, 32% are “basic” and only 30% are proficient or advanced.
“Why? Because only when this data is broken out by race and ethnicity is the full picture revealed: 61% of African American fourth-graders and 57% of Latino fourth-graders are reading at a below basic level, compared to 26% of white students and 31% of Asian students.
“Why? Because on the same test, 84% of poor kids failed to meet proficiency standards, compared to 59% of students who are not poor. That latter statistic is just plain shameful. The former is an outright disaster.
“Martin Luther King Junior once said: ‘we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.’
“And I know you agree with me, that our nation is imperiled if we write off these kids who are not being equipped with the most basic skills to survive and thrive.
“Two things strike me about this data. First, too many kids – regardless of race, ethnicity, or income – who should have benefited most from the standards-based reform movement and the historic federal investment in education during the Clinton years are failing to even achieve proficiency in reading. And second, the achievement gap based on race, ethnicity and income is absolutely staggering. We have a moral imperative to address it.
“Those of you who are advocates for increased federal investment in education must embrace the reforms necessary to improve our public schools. And, in my view, the No Child Left Behind Act holds great promise for ensuring that our public schools serve those children who are most at risk.
“I know that this is not a universal view. In my own congressional district, some school superintendents – including my state superintendent – have embraced the bill and told me that they share its goals.
“But others are more critical. Some resent the federal intrusion into local affairs. Some know that they will struggle to meet many of the law’s requirements. Others don’t appreciate the harsh glare of the spotlight on the schools which are failing to have all of their students meet adequate yearly progress, or ‘AYP’. And I suspect that parents will resent that their school is labeled as “needing improvement” because some groups of students fail to meet performance benchmarks.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the annual goals and the 12-year proficiency goal of the No Child Left Behind Act will be difficult to meet. But I believe that this legislation offers the most promise to those who have long labored to ensure that poor and minority children have the resources to succeed.
“Obviously, we must not turn our backs on the performance of low-income children or children of color.
And this ‘harsh spotlight’ must be used to shine a light on the unacceptable: that the achievement of some students has masked the underachievement of the most vulnerable children. For example, African-American and Latino 17 year olds do math at the same levels as white 13 year olds, according to NAEP data. The same holds true for reading.
“Consider that one middle school in Florida received an ‘A’ on the state report card from the president’s brother because 52% of its students met the state’s proficiency target in reading. But here’s what that grade fails to reveal: while 90% of the school’s white students were proficient in reading only 22% of its African-American students and 22% of its low-income students were rated proficient. And here’s the kicker: the school is 59% African-American and 57% low-income. As you can see, though, the school is failing to educate an enormous number of children.
“Just across the river in Virginia, another middle school that is primarily minority and 50% low-income was fully-accredited under Virginia’s system. Yet, it failed to make the federal ‘AYP’ standard for this school year.
“Again, at this school 60% of the overall students met the state proficiency standard, but only 40% of the low-income students, 39% of the Hispanic students and little over half of the African-American students met the standard.
“Now, the No Child Left Behind Act is not a cure-all for the problems we face in public education. There is no magic fix. You have to begin by recruiting highly qualified, motivated and energetic teachers and paying them the salaries that are commensurate with their responsibilities – and most importantly, which will give you the ability to recruit such qualified teachers.
“But the No Child Left Behind Act is an important first step in education reform; a recognition that we have been failing too many children for too long, a recognition that achievement gaps will be bridged only through increased funding and real accountability.
“As disappointed as I am in the failure to fully fund the act at the authorized levels, I think that gutting the accountability standards is practically and politically unacceptable. We need to uphold our end of the bargain as surely as we need to expose the republicans for failing to uphold theirs.
“Finally, allow me to say just a few words about the issue of school vouchers. As you all know, recently the House of Representative narrowly approved legislation to authorize federal funds for vouchers in the District of Columbia. The debate now turns to the Senate.
“While we cannot be guided by polling data on this issue, we ignore it at our own peril. Look at what it reveals: according to the 2002 national opinion poll, 57% of African-American respondents support school vouchers, while 60% of Hispanics do. By comparison, 52% of white respondents support vouchers.
“The same poll reveals how public schools are viewed. A majority of white respondents, almost 54%, rated their public school as excellent or good, while only 35% of blacks did so. The good news is that more blacks are rating their public schools as excellent or good, but there is still a rather large gap in the perceptions between blacks and whites adults on school performance.
“Now, let me be clear: I oppose publicly funded vouchers. Public education is a national priority, the reason for our nation’s strength, and critical to ensuring a broad middle class. De-funding our public schools is not the answer. But let’s recognize that we cannot win the hearts and minds of the public on this issue by just saying ‘no.’ This issue is about academic achievement, regardless of the delivery model.
And it is incumbent on those of us in this room, and the organizations you represent, to offer the public – and poor children – an alternative.
“In my view, the accountability standards contained the No Child Left Behind act help to provide that. It’s not tenable to tell the parents of children in failing schools that we oppose vouchers – what they regard as possible escape hatch – while at the same time pulling back from our commitment to ensure no children are being left behind.
“The No Child Left Behind Act is not a panacea. It’s a recognition that the greatest nation on the face of the earth is committed to public education, and that we can and must do better. It is our job to continue to make the case for federal funding in public education. We need to make that argument, and backing away from some of the uncomfortable data that comes to light from the No Child Left Behind Act is not the way to do it.
“There is no alternative if America is to be successful in ensuring that public education provides a quality education that is accessible to all. On that, there must be no compromise. The risks are too great from a policy, moral and political perspective to do otherwise.”