Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary Duncan at the National Urban League’s Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

Archived Information

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary Duncan at the National Urban League’s Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

March 18, 2015

Note: Speaker deviated from prepared remarks.

Thank you for letting me be a part of your 12th annual legislative conference.

Throughout its history, the Urban League has stood for meaningful action that helps not just communities of color, but also the entire country in our ongoing effort to create a more just and equal society. So I want to thank you for your work. And I want to say that I share your sense of urgency, as does my entire team.

We all know that if we are ever going to establish a society that delivers on our national promise of opportunity for all, it’s going to be because of the quality – and the equity – of our schools. It’s fitting that we come together to talk about this now, since next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act being signed into law – and since the leaders of the 114th Congress have vowed to reauthorize that law, which is now seven years overdue, sometime in 2015.

President Johnson saw ESEA as the cornerstone of his entire War on Poverty. He said: “I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.”

Fifty years later, we can see evidence of the ways in which Johnson was right – and the distance we still need to travel. On one hand, the progress America’s educators, families, communities and students have made is undeniable:

  • Black and Latino 9-year-olds of today are doing math at about the same level that their 13-year-old counterparts did in the 1970s
  • Today, a young Hispanic person is half as likely to drop out of high school, and twice as likely to be enrolled in college.
  • Just since 2008, college enrollment among black and Hispanic students is up by 1.1 million.
  • For the first time, four out of five students are completing high school on time.
  • And between 2010-11 and 2012-13, the graduation rates for black and Hispanic students have increased by nearly 4 percentage points, outpacing the growth for all students.

Those are meaningful changes that will shape the lives of millions of young people and their families. The credit for them goes to America’s educators, families, communities, and to the students themselves. And yet, for all that progress, we still live in a society that is, in too many ways, still separate and unequal.

Some recently released data make this point unmistakably clear.

  • In 23 states, students from low-income families are being shortchanged when it comes to how their schools are funded – in some places, dramatically so.  In these states, districts serving the highest percentage of students from low-income families spend fewer state and local dollars per pupil than the lowest poverty districts, even though we know that students from low-income families have greater educational needs. 
  • How many young people are being negatively affected by this underfunding problem? 6.6 million of them.
  • And in 20 states, districts with high percentages of minority students are spending fewer state and local dollars than districts with the lowest percentages of minority students. 
      •  In Nevada, the highest minority districts spent 30 percent less per student than the lowest minority districts.
      •  In Nebraska, it’s a 17 percent difference.
      •  And in Arizona, students of color receive 15 percent less than white children.

The worst part is that over the last decade, these gaps have widened. That means many of our states have actually been moving in the wrong direction – providing less support for education for those who already start off with the least.

And the problem is not limited to just 23 states. The reality is that far too many of our states have schools that are racially and socioeconomically isolated; and that are producing radically unequal results for students of color. That’s not just unfortunate; it’s unconscionable.

And its implications for our work are undeniable:

  • 119 years after the Supreme Court’s misguided ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, these numbers offer clear evidence the ways in which states are still allowing schoolchildren to endure separate and unequal learning conditions.
  • 61 years ago, the court fixed the moral error of the Plessy ruling with Brown v. Board of Education, saying that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” Yet 61 years after Brown, too many of our state governments continue to find a place for it nonetheless.

It’s true: money doesn’t solve everything, and the issues we face in transforming our school systems will require a lot more than fair funding. At the same time, budgetsare reflections of our values. And where we see these inequities – in both Northern and Southern states and under both Republican and Democratic leadership – the reality is that what we preach doesn’t align with what we practice. That’s more than just a policy problem. It’s a moral issue for this country.

As President Obama said two weeks ago in Selma, the march is not yet over. There is still important and difficult work to be done. And as these data demonstrate, we are not as far removed from the injustices of 1965 as we would like to believe.

Congressman John Lewis just reminded us of this – and if anyone is qualified to speak about the central lessons of 1965, it’s John Lewis. As a 25-year-old, he helped lead the marchers across that bridge in Selma. For almost 30 years, he has represented the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And just last month, in response to a proposed education bill in the House that would cut funding, lower standards, and roll back protections for our most vulnerable young people, Lewis said what we all feel:  “We don't want to go back; we want to go forward.”

That’s right. We don’t want to go back. We won’t go back.

But we can’t go forward without acknowledging the ways in which some of the most uncomfortable elements of our past are still shaping the present. Your president, Marc Morial, has said it well: a great and equitable system of schools must be built on a foundation of the following two principles:

  • Accountability, which enshrines our commitment to one another, and to meaningful outcomes for all children; and
  • Equity, which ensures our ability to live up to our founding ideals, and to meaningful inputs for all schools.

All sides agree that No Child Left Behind is long overdue for a reauthorization. And yet while we’ve learned a lot over the past fifteen years, the current bills in the House and the Senate would represent a full-scale retreat from both of those principles.

I hope that Sen. Alexander and Sen. Murray, in their bipartisan conversations, will address those issues and craft a stronger new law. But they need to hear us clearly on this. We must go forward. We cannot go back.

Both sides of this story – the evidence that our schools are improving, and the evidence that wide inequities still exist – demand that we act and reauthorize ESEA.

What will we remember about 2015, fifty years from now?

  • Will we look back and wonder why we didn’t do more to respond to the urgency – and the underlying issues – of Ferguson?
  • Or will we make 2015 the year when we were willing to confront our own failures and imperfections, and do whatever it took to make our public schools worthy of the promises we continue to make about them?

I hope it becomes a year we can look back on and say, as President Obama said two weeks ago in Selma, that “there’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem.”

I am sure you have questions about how we can do this, and ideas about what needs to happen in order to craft a better and more equitable ESEA. For now, let me simply say that a new ESEA must do the following:

  • It must give teachers and principals the resources they need, while also supporting schools and districts in creating innovative new solutions to problems;
  • It must make real investments in high-poverty schools and districts, and in expanding high-quality preschool;
  • It must create high expectations that where groups of students or schools are not making progress, there will be an action plan for change;
  • It must identify schools that are consistently not making progress and provide them with extra resources and support, especially the lowest-achieving 5 percent; and,
  • It must address funding inequities for schools that serve high proportions of low-income students.

The President’s 2016 budget proposal reflects these priorities, particularly by requesting these additional funds:

  • $1 billion in Title I funding for our schools with the greatest needs;
  • $5 billion over 5 years to support innovative approaches to teacher preparation, professional development, and support;
  • $500 million more in preschool development grant funding; and
  • A near tripling of funding for Promise Neighborhoods.

Those funds support the core ideas we believe will result in a system with real accountability and equity. I’m eager to hear your own. So let’s turn this into a conversation, and thank you, again, for welcoming me into this work with you.