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What Might a Civil Rights-Focused ESEA Reauthorization Look Like?

BOULDER, CO (October 11, 2022) – The last several years have been trying for students, communities, and schools. States and local educational agencies have been working to meet the significant health and educational needs of students and to address the vast racial and socioeconomic inequities that have been heightened by the pandemic. Success in the efforts depends on a responsive, strong, and effective federal role in education.

The federal government’s significant, albeit limited, role in education remains vital nearly 60 years after the initial passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s fundamental legislation concerning K-12 schooling. This is particularly true as the U.S. grapples with a global pandemic, enduring racial and socioeconomic inequality, entrenched educational disparities, and attacks on democracy. The ESEA was most recently reauthorized in 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which itself was due for reauthorization after the 2020-21 school year. Congress may not act any time soon on that reauthorization, but when it does it can improve the law in key ways.

Over the past several years, vibrant, intersectional social movements have taken up and expanded the policy demands for equitable, excellent, and just schooling. Because ESEA remains the government’s most consequential mechanism to promote equity in public education, its reauthorization presents an opportunity to re-envision this federal role in promoting access to quality educational opportunities by fostering racial and socioeconomic equity in alignment with the original intent of ESEA.

To that end, NEPC today released a policy brief, A Civil Rights Framework for the Reauthorization of ESEA, authored by Elizabeth DeBray of the University of Georgia, Kara S. Finnigan of the University of Michigan, Janel George of Georgetown University Law Center, and Janelle Scott of the University of California-Berkeley. The authors have developed a civil rights framework to guide the redesign of ESSA. This equitable, evidence-based, and ecological framework places students, staff, school systems, and cross-sector collaboration at the center of ESEA and considers the complexity of racial, socioeconomic, and other inequities along with the strengths nested within communities.

Their approach centers the health and the socioemotional well-being of students, families, and staff and accounts for the historical, structural, and environmental factors that have made educational inequity seemingly intractable. The brief offers recommendations that build upon ESSA’s core purpose and its critical history as being, first and foremost, a civil rights law. As such, the recommendations are designed to ensure it is responsive to racial and social inequities across systems that affect students’ educational experiences and outcomes.

Find A Civil Rights Framework for the Reauthorization of ESEA, by Elizabeth DeBray, Kara S. Finnigan, Janel George, and Janelle Scott, at:

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: