As we face historic childhood poverty rates in Kentucky, we must look to education as the most viable way out of this crisis.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate committee tasked with writing federal education laws, emphasized that to "prepare our children to compete in the global economy, we must ensure that every American child has access to a world-class education."
Last month, the committee made the first step in the right direction when it approved the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011, released on Oct. 19 by Harkin and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the committee's top Republican.
While not perfect and still a work in progress, the bill aims to rectify the inherent flaws of the current federal education law, which has neglected too many kids in rural America. Sure, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has injected long-needed accountability into our education system. But one of the lessons we've learned over the past decade is that it was disproportionately geared toward the needs of suburban and urban kids.
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It failed to consider the unique challenges of children in rural school districts such as Clay County in southeastern Kentucky. In February, Clay County Schools Superintendent Reecia Samples and student representatives met in Washington, D.C., at the behest of John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach in the Department of Education, to make the case for more equitable investment in rural communities and the flexibility for states such as Kentucky to measure progress.
"Rural districts, such as my community, have been making tremendous strides with our students, and the new federal legislation needs to recognize that progress and allow for states like Kentucky to best define practices for student success," said Samples. Leading the nation as the first state to adopt the Common Core Academic Standards, Kentucky is requesting a testing waiver to ensure the appropriate flexibility in the assessment process.
Our laws must acknowledge the trials and tribulations of rural schools. Filling this void, Save the Children has delivered critical support to academically lagging students and overextended teachers at struggling schools in the most remote parts of Kentucky.
Last year, we partnered with 31 schools in 10 counties, reaching 13,089 students through educational programs designed to help children overcome barriers that stand in the way of a brighter future.
The long-awaited reforms to No Child Left Behind include best practices proven successful in Save the Children's education programs. Revisions to the 21st Century Community Learning Center model, for example, reflect the need for in-school and extended school-day interventions. The new Improve Literacy Instruction and Achievement program requires states to focus on early-childhood education and would allocate considerable funding to improve literacy, specifically for children reading below grade level.
What's more, for the first time, the Investing in Innovation Fund that provides competitive grants for practices to improve student achievement would award 22 percent of annual funds specifically for low-income rural schools. If this had been in place in 2009, more than $100 million could have gone to rural schools. In reality, very little — if any — went to rural-specific programs.
In this bill, teaching to the test would be replaced by a return to teaching the child. Title I schools would no longer be measured by Annual Yearly Progress standards, which have frustrated educators in our schools by undermining successful local initiatives. Instead, our state would be required to develop new, rigorous assessments by 2015 to identify low-performing schools and generate action plans for improvement that would empower local schools to take into account the unique needs of their students.
These revisions have opened the door for us to advocate aggressively for our state to implement these measures in a way that would benefit rural schools. They would have a real impact in real classrooms that desperately need real investments.
Now, as the full Senate considers this bill, let's urge lawmakers to set politics aside, make any needed changes and pass this important legislation as a long-overdue down payment on the future of our children in rural communities who have been left behind for far too long.