As America's children headed back to school in September, President Obama delivered a televised back-to-school address to the nation's students from the Julia R. Masterman School in Philadelphia, an acclaimed public magnet school for fifth through twelfth graders. He spoke about the importance of hard work—a lesson his own mother was quick to drill into him as soon as she sensed his effort level in high school was starting to hit a slump. Passing along the lesson he learned, the President told the students, "Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing—absolutely nothing—is beyond your reach, so long as you're willing to dream big, so long as you're willing to work hard. So long as you're willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish."
He continued to stress the importance of education, telling them that "Nothing is going to have as great an impact on your success in life as your education, how you're doing in school…The farther you go in school, the farther you're going to go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, it's going to determine America's success in the 21st century. So you've got an obligation to yourselves, and America has an obligation to you, to make sure you're getting the best education possible. And making sure you get that kind of education is going to take all of us working hard and all of us working hand in hand."
Children need to work hard to do their part—and adults need to do ours to fulfill our obligation to our children. Right now, we all know that millions of children are below grade level and are not being prepared for the future. President Obama recently admitted his own daughters would not be getting the same education in the Washington, D.C. public school system that they receive at their current private school, but observed that it should not be that way. Every child, regardless of the family's socioeconomic status, deserves a high quality education and we must make sure that our public schools provide it for all children. Today, 15.5 million children in America live in poverty, including more than one in three Black children and one in three Hispanic children. The best hope these children have of lifting themselves out of poverty is a quality education. But for far too long the most vulnerable children in America have been denied this chance. Inequities in educational funding, resources, and opportunities have systematically placed poor and minority children in low-performing schools with inadequate facilities and too many ineffective teachers.
While the Obama Administration has pledged to level the playing field for all children, several crucial components of real education reform are in danger of being overlooked. We must urge the following changes as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is reauthorized.
First, the ESEA Title I funding formula, which is supposed to help low-income students, should be revised to eliminate the blatant education funding inequities that currently exist between and within states. A new formula is needed to protect rather than hurt children in districts with concentrated poverty. Second, in order to help the neediest young students, we need to support early learning initiatives and include children ages zero to five in calculations for Title I allocations. Next, we need to end the zero-tolerance school discipline policies and out-of-school suspensions that contribute to school dropouts and push children into the cradle to prison pipeline. Finally, we need to ensure support for children in juvenile justice facilities and foster care so that our most vulnerable youths receive the education they need to be successful in adulthood.
It's time for the federal government to be an instrument of equality rather than inequality. We need to seize the opportunity to support this doable and long overdue goal in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. As President Obama correctly stated in his back-to-school address: "This is a country that gives all its daughters and all of its sons a fair chance, a chance to make the most of their lives and fulfill their God-given potential." We must make this potential reality for every single child.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund