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It was 50 years ago this month that President Lyndon Johnson traveled to a one-room school house in Stonewall, Texas, where he attended classes, to sign the most expansive piece of federal education legislation ever enacted — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESEA was a key part of the president's War on Poverty. A teacher himself, Johnson said at the signing, "I believe deeply no law has been signed or will ever be signed that means more to the future of America. We have established the law. Let us not delay in putting it to work."

The debate over whether additional education dollars were key to student success took on a new twist a year later. A major study commissioned by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights known as the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report found it was the family and community where the child lived that were more important determinants of success than what goes on in the classroom. The report, known as the Coleman report named after the lead Johns Hopkins researcher, James Coleman, challenged established thinking in 1966 and is still considered one of the most significant sociological studies ever done.

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Fast forward 50 years, and the questions of overcoming the effects of poverty are still very much with us. Most studies confirm that the academic success of children from disadvantaged families doesn't match that of their higher income colleagues, and the disparity is getting worse — not better. A study by Stanford scientist Sean Reardon shows that the achievement gap between high and low-income families is 30-40 percent higher among children born in 2001 than those born a quarter of century earlier. His research notes that the "income achievement gap" is an even stronger predictor of student success than the black-white achievement gap.

Notwithstanding some recent improvement in the economy, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) reported in January that low-income students make up a majority of U. S. public schools students. Many predicted this would happen but were surprised it happened so soon. SEF Vice President Steve Suitts said , "No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low-income students simply a matter of fairness. … Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future."

Unlike 50 years ago, the response of the federal government to poverty and student progress is what one policy expert calls "putting one's head in the sand and simply ignoring the relationship." President Barack Obama wants more testing of students, adoption of Common Core standards and new measures of accountability for teachers. On the other hand, the new Republican-led Congress is considering reauthorizing ESEA, currently referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act, which has not been acted on since 2002. At that time, provisions were added mandating all students be tested annually in science and math and that schools should be proficient in those subjects by 2014. In the past three years, the Obama administration has granted waivers from these requirements to more than 40 states.

The expectation is that if any reauthorization bill is passed it will make only modest changes. In fact, the new Senate education committee chairman, Lamar Alexander, has talked about returning some authority back to the states. This led to a rebuke from Nancy Zirkin of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights who said, "Chairman Alexander's proposal would send us back to a dark time in our nation when schools across the country, operating with no federal oversight, could freely ignore the needs of disadvantaged students." With the lack of a coordinated federal response to address the needs of poor children, national and state policymakers are adopting more targeted interventions such as promoting high quality early childhood programs and the expansion of health and social services clinics in schools — similar to what is in place at the Weinberg Early Childhood center and Henderson-Hopkins K-8 school in East Baltimore.

While these approaches will have some success, a more comprehensive national effort is needed. As we recognize the half century of ESEA and its potential, we should remember the vision Johnson laid out when he said, "I believe deeply no law has been signed or will ever be signed that means more to the future of America." The foundation is in place — we can still bridge the gap between hopelessness and hope.

A former member of the Baltimore City school board and the Maryland House of Delegates, James Campbell is a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. His email is jcamp@jhu.edu.

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