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Our Kids Count
A Project of The Advocacy Institute

Our Kids Count > Letter to Secy Duncan June 2011

June 16, 2011

The Honorable Arne Duncan
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Duncan:

We are writing to express our concern regarding requests to offer regulatory relief and waivers of provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). A recent letter to you from certain organizations focused exclusively on the burdens ESEA imposes on school districts and schools. In addition, your op-ed in Politico this week described the Department's willingness to issue waivers of ESEA's requirements. What both of these pieces lacked, however was any discussion about the impact of regulatory relief or waivers on students.

We, like you, agree that congressional reauthorization is the first and best way to fix ESEA, and there is still time in the 112th Congress to accomplish this task. We urge you, Mr. Secretary, to show forbearance and continue to actively support Congress in its work.

Low-income students, students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities can illafford a slackening of the demands on their schools just because adults are losing their patience with the congressional process. Nor can these students afford for schools and districts to be confused about what the goal is, who is setting the goal, and whether the goal is going to change with every new Secretary of Education. For the sake of students, our first priority ought to be establishing a strong, consistent law even if that means adjusting our preferred timelines.

That said, should you decide to take the less desirable path of granting ESEA waivers, we urge you to do so with the best interests of students—particularly low-income students, minority students, and students with disabilities—in mind. Moreover, we urge you to do so through a transparent process with input from all stakeholders, and in full compliance with ESEA's statutory obligations.

The latest iteration of ESEA, the No Child Left behind Act, spurred overdue, though uneven, action on our nation's achievement gaps. The law made it difficult for schools and districts to mask the lagging achievement of students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities beneath the higher achievement rates of their peers, and it required schools to address this problem.

More action, of course, is sorely needed. Nationally, only about one-third of our fourth-grade students are proficient in reading. As low as that number is, it still far exceeds the approximately 15 percent proficiency rate among African Americans and 16 percent rate among Latinos. Similarly, in eighth-grade math, about 45 percent of middle-income and high-income students are proficient, compared with only
17 percent of low-income students.

Indeed, all available data say exactly the same thing: We must dramatically ratchet up the quality and rigor of the education we are providing to all of our students. But we must be especially vigorous in overhauling the substandard education provided to far too many of our low-income students, students of color, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

Our country cannot afford to continue squandering so much talent. Though times are rough, ratcheting back our expectations for progress will only compound our economic woes. Any action on NCLB—legislative, regulatory, or the issuance of waivers— must be aimed at increasing student achievement and dramatically reducing achievement gaps. If, in time, Congress demonstrates that it cannot in this session produce a stronger, better law, any waiver strategy must demand more—not less—in terms of achievement and gap closing. Proposals that even hint at taking our foot off the accelerator, must meet a clear and swift response: "Neither our students nor our country can afford it."

We appreciate the efforts you and your staff have exerted to improve education for all of our country's students. We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure that our most vulnerable students remain the focal point of ESEA reauthorization efforts.


50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now
The Advocacy Institute
The Alliance for Excellent Education
The Arc
Children's Defense Fund
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc.
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Easter Seals
Education Equality Project
The Education Trust
League of United Latin American Citizens
Learning Disabilities Association of America
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
National Association of School Psychologists
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Council of La Raza
National Disability Rights Network
National Down Syndrome Society
United Cerebral Palsy


Sen. Tom Harkin, Chair, Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee
Sen. Michael Enzi, Ranking Member, Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee
Rep. John Kline, Chair, House Education and Workforce Committee
Rep. George Miller, Ranking Member, House Education and Workforce Committee

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