Remarks by Secretary Paige before the Urban League
Archived Information

March 25, 2004
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I am delighted to come here, to the heart of our democracy, to discuss perhaps the most important function of a democracy, education. And education is tied to the urban experience. Our nation had to learn the importance of universal public education. And it took people like Horace Mann, Frederick Douglass, John Dewey and Thurgood Marshall to teach us. And George Washington Carver, Ralph Bunche, W.E.B. DuBois and Benjamin Elijah Mays powerfully argued that education was the single most important way to address racism, poverty, crime, and alienation.

Public education isn't a perfect institution. It didn't come to us; we had to craft it. We had to fight for it. And we did fight, as immigrants and as slaves, as rich and poor, to make it available to all. We had to learn as we grew in our hearts and in our experience.

So we made improvements in quality and service over time. We desegregated our schools. We changed the sources of funding to make school districts more equitable. We moved from the basement classroom into the space age and now into the age of technology. And we made all of these changes because education had to be fair, successful, just and nurturing. We needed these changes to keep our cities and our country strong.

Looking back, as a nation, we appreciate the vast majority of our improvements and changes, especially those that enhanced quality or made education more inclusive. Yes, there were struggles at the time, especially after emancipation and again after desegregation, because the educational system resists change; there is a built-in inertia. There are special interests, pride, tradition, misunderstanding and even bureaucracy that sometimes stand in the way. But visionary changes have been central to our nation's continuous leadership, influence and economic success. If public education doesn't evolve, it decays and falls into ruin, becoming a relic of hope rather than the path to personal growth and economic security. Our educational system must be a palace of learning, not a shameful shack.

I believe we have made an historic change with No Child Left Behind. Passed just over two years ago by a bipartisan majority of the Congress, this law is a milestone in education improvement. It is enabling students to better prepare for the future. And it teaches a crucial lesson: That education—real, quality education—must be made available to all students, including African American, Hispanic, special-needs and low-income students.

Change was necessary. There was a growing division in American education. Many of our children receive an outstanding education, the best in the world. These students have unlimited choices, personal growth, a wide range of job opportunities, the best hope for advancement and economic security.

Despite the best efforts of parents, teachers, and schools, however, some of our children—millions of students—are left behind. We all know these children. They come from our backgrounds, our neighborhoods and even our own homes. For these students, the future may be closed off. Access to opportunity is denied. They are robbed of future opportunities by circumstance, background or simply location. As a result, they never realize their potential. They leave school undereducated and unprepared for a global economy. They may wander in a kind of economic darkness for a lifetime.

In addition, they learn a lesson in school that we must not teach—that they are marginal, unimportant or expendable. They learn about disrespect and disregard through personal experience. They suffer in silence, becoming what author Ralph Ellison might have called "the invisible student."

Like most revolutionary changes, No Child Left Behind has been controversial. But this is a workable law. It is a good law. It is a necessary law to guarantee a high-quality education for all children, making the educational system more inclusive, fair and just. It is a law that will help preserve our country's economic and political leadership throughout the world. Perhaps more than any other law, this one is our best hope for the future of our nation.

Since passage of the law, the discussion has been intense, especially about funding. There are those who believe we have dumped an "unfunded mandate" on them. In fact, this has been an easy criticism to make, because the law is complex and it is easy to misunderstand it.

But it is adequately funded. Four independent studies confirm it. We have calibrated the money necessary to implement the law and are providing it. Federal education funding now is larger than under any previous administration. It is at historic levels. For example, in the president's 2005 budget, funding for education would be $57.3 billion, an increase of 36 percent since 2001.

And there is no federal "mandate" except this: We have asked that fourth-graders read and do math at a fourth-grade level. That should be the goal of public education anyway. It's common sense. We didn't add a burden that the states did not already have, if they really wanted to provide a high-quality education for all children.

The federal government's role in education is to support efforts on the local level. If a state decides to accept the federal funds, then it's required to implement the law in its entirety. This is nothing new. The difference is that we mean it—we will hold states accountable, making sure children really do get the high-quality education they deserve from a great nation such as ours.

There is much flexibility built into the law. This is one of its greatest strengths. There are important provisions that allow state and local governments to shift other federal education money to meet their particular needs at the local level.

This law is an important opportunity for state and local administrators to better target resources precisely because of the flexibility built into the legislation. When I was a superintendent, I would have welcomed this flexibility. I know many superintendents feel the same way.

Since passage, I have worked on a timeline to utilize the flexibility in the law, while at the same time holding states accountable. This is a balancing effort, and that process of balanced policy development is often missed or misunderstood. This is the first school year since states put their education reform plans into place, as required by No Child Left Behind. Thus, there has been a little over one semester of solid implementation of this historic education law. Once we received solid feedback and data—which we sought—we started issuing policies and regulations to help states implement the law. Fine-tuning the law has always been anticipated, long before state legislative sessions addressed the issue.

There are nearly 40 areas of flexibility that the Department of Education recently identified in the "Charting the Course" document issued earlier this year. I encourage you to read it on our Web site if you haven't already. Also, I hope you will notice our recent release on the Web of over 50 guidance letters sent to states. These letters further demonstrate the flexibility given to states.

Last week I announced a new policy about highly qualified teachers that will help clarify any confusion and help state and local officials recruit and retain great teachers. More than any other factor, we know that the key to student achievement is having a highly qualified teacher. But we know that inner-city students tend to get the short shrift. This law will help change that inequity.

I have spoken of flexibility. But it must be balanced with toughness on foundational requirements. We are serious about enforcement. We have made this very clear. For example, we have explained that the Department is prepared to delay the release of funding until states pay adequate attention to the quality of their teachers.

Already we see considerable evidence that the law is working.

I was pleased by the most recent scores on the Nation's Report Card, or NAEP. The mathematics scores for fourth- and eighth-graders significantly jumped between 2000 and 2003. It is important to note that African American, Hispanic American and low-income students accounted for some of the most significant improvements. As a result, the achievement gap between white and black students is closing for both fourth- and eighth-graders.

This week further evidence comes from a report that was released by the Council of Great City Schools. Students in the largest urban public—school systems showed improvement in reading and math in the first year under No Child Left Behind. The study reviewed test scores from 61 urban school districts in 37 states.

This is all good news, but of course we can and must do better. And I know we will with the blueprint of No Child Left Behind guiding our efforts. The Department is continuing our unprecedented effort to work with states to get the job done. We have been constructively listening and working with teachers, principals, superintendents, school board members, parents and government officials. And we have been listening to students—and they appreciate our efforts to make sure they are not ignored, disrespected or undereducated. They understand this is about them.

This law is a pathway to the future. It is based on values that are at the core of our democracy. It is designed to improve the quality of education. It helps better prepare teachers and schools to deliver the best possible education, to give every child a world-class education.

We must not be complacent. Public education is a more fragile institution than many realize. Doors and opportunities can be swiftly closed. We could easily move back, lose our achievements and have our progress evaporate, instead of moving forward into a fully democratic, informed, inclusive and cohesive future.

We must make sure that every child receives a quality education—every single one. That is the promise of No Child Left Behind. It's that simple. And I truly believe that education is a civil right. It is the next logical step to the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated our schools half a century ago. Brown promised access to school for all children, regardless of their skin color. Today, No Child Left Behind aims to go beyond that question of access: Now that everyone can walk into the schoolhouse door unimpeded and unafraid, we have to make sure that they receive a high-quality education.

Like you, I am frustrated that the problems Brown was meant to address are still with some parts of our society: lack of educational achievement, the denial of educational opportunities and the economic consequences that follow.

We must directly address the reasons for economic, political and cultural alienation. We must heal division, not accept it. We must grow together as a nation, not grow separately. And we must become inclusive for all people, not just because it is the basis of our constitution, but also because it is the right thing to do.

The best way to do all that—the single best way—is to make our schools more successful and equitable. It is to give our schools the resources they need, to demand that they educate all of our children, to place qualified teachers in every classroom and to allow parents more education options. No Child Left Behind embodies those goals. I hope you will work with me as we strive to make this nation a better place, thanks to laws like No Child Left Behind.

Thank you, again, for inviting me to share these thoughts with you.



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Last Modified: 03/25/2004