Senator Udall on Education Reform: The Stakes are High for New Mexico Students as Senate Works to Reform No Child Left Behind

Reform bill could be better for New Mexico, Udall says

As the Senate debates reform of the nation’s controversial No Child Left Behind education law, U.S. Senator Tom Udall highlighted the impact the Senate’s bill — called the Every Child Achieves Act — could have on New Mexico students. In a speech on the Senate floor, Udall urged the Senate to improve the law and ensure it supports New Mexico students and teachers, as well as all students across the country who deserve a fair shot at success. Udall has already worked to include several provisions in the bill, and he highlighted the critical need to provide support and resources for early education, Native American schools, health and STEM education, teen parents and teachers.

“We should build on what works and leave behind what doesn’t. But don’t leave behind good students or those teachers who dedicate their lives to helping them,” Udall said. “Now is the time for reform: to assure that standards are strong and if not met, efforts are in place to help those students; to make sure that teachers and parents know how students are performing every year; and to give states and school districts the support to succeed.”

“But let’s be clear,” Udall continued, “we face troubling and chronic achievement and opportunity gaps. Every school must address this and be held accountable. Now is the time to address resource inequities. Now is the time to invest in what works and not take resources away from students, schools and districts with the greatest needs.”

Almost one in three children in New Mexico lives in poverty, and the state ranks last in overall child well-being. Udall added that he is committed to working to change this and ensuring that every child has a fair shot and receives the education they need — for their futures and for the future of New Mexico’s economy.

“If we fail at taking care of our children, we will fail at everything else. So the stakes are high as we work to reform No Child Left Behind,” Udall said. “The Every Child Achieves Act is a step forward. When we say every child succeeds, we have to mean it. Every child – including those in the poorest and most vulnerable communities.”

Earlier this year, Udall introduced legislation aimed at helping improve the health and education of New Mexico children by increasing access to federal education and anti-poverty programs. The Saving Our Next Generation (SONG) Act would fully fund and streamline eligibility for programs that are proven to improve child well-being, such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Head Start, school meal programs and housing assistance. Udall said he supports amendments to the Every Child Achieves Act, such as a proposal by Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the Strong Start for America’s Children, which would create a five-year innovative federal-state partnership to expand and improve early learning opportunities for children across the birth-to-age-5 continuum.

Udall also discussed his amendment, which passed Wednesday, calling for the secretaries of Education and the Interior to conduct a study regarding elementary and secondary education in rural or poverty areas. Udall has introduced another amendment to ensure that the Bureau of Indian Education is always part of formula set asides for states and always eligible to apply for competitive discretionary grants when appropriate.

While Udall is pushing the Senate to improve the bill, he has already secured provisions in the legislation, including measures to classify physical education and health as core subjects and provide support to help teen parents stay in school and raise healthy children. The bill also includes some of Udall’s other education priorities, like steps to strengthen early childhood education, a measure to expand Native language immersion programs, and investments in STEM teaching, financial literacy, rural school districts and 21st-century learning centers.

Below are Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Nelson Mandela once said that, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” Every child deserves a fair chance. If we fail at taking care of our children, we will fail at everything else.

So the stakes are high as we work to reform No Child Left Behind. Too many children are left behind. The Every Child Achieves Act is a step forward.

I want to thank Senators Alexander and Murray for working so hard on this bill. It is bipartisan, and it is an opportunity for real progress in educating our children.

My dad used to say, “Get it done, but get it done right.” When we say every child succeeds, we have to mean it. Every child. Including those in the poorest and most vulnerable communities. That is what we must do. That is the bill we must pass.

I am cautiously optimistic, but I would remind my colleagues we can’t keep playing catch-up. I have met with child well-being experts in New Mexico and across our nation. They are very clear – early intervention is key.

For too many children, there are too many hurdles and too little hope. Our commitment has to begin early and has to stay the course.

In New Mexico, almost one in three children live in poverty. One in five go to bed hungry. We are ranked next to last in education, last in overall child-well being. This is unacceptable. The future of my state – for our children and for our economy – depends on changing it.

Earlier this year, I introduced the Saving Our Next Generation Act for full funding for programs that work: for critical pre-natal care, for Healthy Start and Head Start. Too little, too late doesn’t work. The result is wasted opportunity and continued failure. Children need to arrive at school ready to learn and able to realize their full potential.

That is why I also emphatically support Senator Casey’s Strong Start amendment – for pre-K education for every child. Early learning is critical. Senator Casey’s amendment would expand and improve those opportunities for children from birth to age 5.

We need to ensure all students get the same opportunities. I have introduced an amendment that provides support for Native American schools. The Bureau of Indian Education functions as a state education agency, but it is not funded as one. It often loses out on grants and other federal funding. We have to change that.

Mr. President, both sides have worked to improve this bill. I’m pleased it has several measures I have long fought for.

For example, healthy children are an investment in our future. Their health education should be a priority – not an afterthought. The bill includes my amendment to make health a core subject.

In addition, we know that too many students – especially in minority communities – are not graduating. In my state, one fifth of high school students drop out every year. Many who drop out are teen parents. My amendment provides critical support to these students. We need to do all we can to help them stay in school and to raise healthy children while they do so.

The Every Child Achieves Act strengthens STEM education, financial literacy, rural school districts and 21st-century community learning centers. It assures that tribal leaders can teach Native languages in their schools – something I have long pushed for. It also supports vital school and community public-private partnerships.

These are much-needed reforms and will make a difference to the children and families in my state.

Our goal is clear: to reach all students – especially those who need the most support to succeed in school.

In New Mexico, three out of four of our schools are Title I schools. They face great challenges. Many students are low-income. Many have special needs. We have to make sure they have the resources they need. This has to be a priority, and it starts with good teachers.

We aren’t going to recruit great teachers – especially in schools with the greatest need – if we unfairly punish those teachers for poor student performance. There has to be flexibility, especially early on.

Mr. President, our first obligation is to the students. All students. We are accountable to them and their parents. And we need to keep applying pressure while providing support to states and school districts to ensure that truly no child is left behind.

But we can’t just test for failure. We need to plan for success. We should build on what works and leave behind what doesn’t. But don’t leave behind good students or those teachers who dedicate their lives to helping them.

Now is the time for reform: to assure that standards are strong and if not met, efforts are in place to help those students; to make sure that teachers and parents know how students are performing every year; and to give states and school districts the support to succeed.

But let’s be clear – we face troubling and chronic achievement and opportunity gaps. Every school must address this and be held accountable. Now is the time to address resource inequities. Now is the time to invest in what works and not take resources away from students, schools and districts with the greatest needs.

Parents deserve to know that when children fall behind, their schools will take action and will have the resources to do so. But it isn’t just schools that must act – so must we. The Congress. Parents. Communities. We all have a stake in this, and we share the same goal: to protect at-risk students, to provide accountability for taxpayer funds and to make sure that every child has a fair chance.

I want to again commend my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for bringing this legislation to the floor. Working together, we can provide all students with the education they need.