Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Recently, the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development launched a six-day, six-city tour of America to educate parents in urban communities about the benefits of No Child Left Behind, and empower them to take advantage of the new opportunities provided by the law.

The two of us set out on this tour because we share a moral obligation to help parents whose lives and backgrounds are similar to our own and because it is our duty to get the word out so people can truly benefit from this law. We were both fortunately born into large supportive families, but we grew up in a time of discrimination and intolerance. Although both of our families struggled to make ends meet, and we grew up in low-income neighborhoods, we have both achieved the American dream — thanks to a strong education.

While school segregation is illegal today, in many urban areas a de facto apartheid has been emerging, with our nation’s most vulnerable students ignored and ultimately left behind. We believe our nation has an obligation to give every student a quality education, and that’s exactly what No Child Left Behind is designed to do, regardless of the student’s skin color, accent or street address. The fact is, equality cannot exist as long as there is an educational achievement gap in our country.

So we set out to find the parents whose lives we know so well, and educate them about No Child Left Behind.

We firmly believe education is the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. Education is truly the last great equalizer, because without a quality education, a child’s future is dimmed by ignorance, indifference, callousness and disregard.

To improve our nation’s schools, President Bush proposed No Child Left Behind as one of his first official acts. The philosophy of the law is quite simple: Every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and we expect proof every child is learning.

Before No Child Left Behind, too many children were shuffled through the system, stigmatized as slow, hard-to-educate, or not worth the time. But No Child Left Behind has reversed this “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

And No Child Left Behind is already working to provide a better education for these children. In recent months, the Education Department has received data from a number of states indicating remarkable, rapid improvements in student achievement.

Contrary to election-year rhetoric, No Child Left Behind has been sufficiently funded by President Bush and Congress. In fact, federal funding for K-12 education has already increased 35 percent under Mr. Bush. Many nonpartisan organizations confirm there is enough money to carry out the law.

So what does the law provide?

The law gives parents whose children are trapped in underperforming schools not just hope, but options. If a school fails to meet state standards in reading and math for two consecutive years, parents may transfer their children to a better-performing public school — including a public charter school — within their district. And for parents who choose that option, the school district must provide transportation.

If a school fails to meet state standards for three years, it must offer its low-income students supplemental educational services such as free tutoring, extra help with homework, after-school services, and summer school.

No Child Left Behind requires states and school districts to give parents easy-to-read, detailed report cards on schools and districts, telling them which are succeeding and why.

Moreover, states must provide parents a detailed report on the safety of their child’s school and the prevalence of drugs.

And if a school is “persistently dangerous” or if a child has been a victim of violent crime on school grounds, schools must offer parents the option of sending their child to another school.

Most importantly, schools are required to annually notify parents if their children are eligible for these services.

On tour, we were ensuring parents are aware of these benefits.

Our steadfast support of the law reflects the president’s and our belief that low-income and minority parents deserve the same school choices middle and upper-income parents have long had access to with their wallets. By reaching out to low-income families across the country, we provide parents with the tools of empowerment necessary to ensure they can take a proactive role in the education of their children.

Each day our nation moves closer to an educational system in which every student has an opportunity to excel, we better serve our children. And by better serving our children, we better prepare them for the leadership and responsibility upon which our future success as a nation depends.

The two of us have witnessed the potential and the promise of the American dream. By providing every American child with a quality education, No Child Left Behind makes sure that dream will be available to everyone.

Alphonso Jackson is secretary of housing and urban development. Rod Paige is secretary of education.

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