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Re-centering civil rights in the reauthorization of ESEA: An equitable, ecological, evidence-based framework




race-conscious policy, federal policy, civil rights, education politics


This article considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in light of current educational inequities and the impact of the pandemic. The reauthorization presents an opportunity to center equity and justice and revitalize the civil rights aspects of the law. The authors review recent studies about the myriad ways the COVID-19 pandemic affected students, teachers and school systems and situates the reauthorization within the broader political context, including federal aid to states and districts during the pandemic. The authors present overarching policy recommendations: (1) a restructuring of the law’s titles to focus on students, teachers, and systems (i.e. schools and districts); (2) a focus on the principles of racial equity, an ecosystem approach to serve students’ needs across policy silos (i.e., housing and health), and a focus on research evidence; (3) policy targets for students; (4) policy targets for educators, including professional renewal and retention; (5) policy targets for the education system as a whole, including a focus on fiscal equity and facilitating regional approaches to cross-sector collaborations. The article presents a coherent conceptual framework for a redesign of ESEA with an emphasis on equity, evidence use, and ecosystems that is argued would directly address the needs of students, teachers, and systems.


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Author Biographies

Elizabeth H. DeBray, University of Georgia

Elizabeth DeBray is Professor of Educational Administration and Policy in the Mary Frances Early College of Education, University of Georgia. Her major interests are the role of intermediary organizations and interest groups in education policy, federal education policy, the use of research evidence by policymakers, district-level politics of school integration, and housing-education policy coordination. She is author of Politics, Ideology, and Education: Federal Policy during the Clinton and Bush Administrations (Teachers College Press, 2006) and co-editor (with E. Frankenberg) of Looking to the Future: Integrating Schools in a Changing Society (UNC Press, 2011).  DeBray received her Ed.D. from Harvard University. She served as a research associate with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard from 1998 to 2002, and as a program analyst in the U.S. Department of Education from 1992 to 1996.

Kara S. Finnigan, University of Michigan

Kara S. Finnigan joined the University of Michigan's Marsal Family School of Education as Professor in 2022. Previously, she spent 19 years at the University of Rochester, most recently as Professor of Education Policy and Leadership and as a Distinguished Equity, Inclusion, and Social Transformation Fellow. She has conducted research and evaluations of K-12 educational policies and programs at the local, state, and federal level for nearly 30 years. She has written extensively about accountability policies, school and district leadership and improvement, and school choice. Her recent work focuses on cross-sector policy alignment, including education, housing, and criminal justice, and the use of research evidence by policymakers and practitioners. Finnigan has published two edited books and her co- authored book Striving in Common: A Regional Equity Framework for Urban Schools was published in 2018 by Harvard Education Press. Her research blends perspectives in education, sociology, and political science; employs both qualitative and quantitative methods, including social network analysis and GIS mapping; and focuses on issues of equity.

Janel George, Georgetown University

Janel George is Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center and the founding Director of the Racial Equity in Education Law and Policy Clinic (REEL Policy Clinic). Her clinical projects and scholarship focus on racial stratification in U.S. public education. Her work and scholarship focus on racial stratification and inequality in U.S. education and legislative and policy interventions to help address them. She has written about the resegregation of public schools, discriminatory school discipline practices, Critical Race Theory, and resource inequities. As a civil rights attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), she worked with several campaigns and coalitions to leverage legislative and policy advocacy to advance equal educational opportunity. She has served as Legislative Counsel in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, during which time her legislative portfolio included child welfare, civil rights, health care, and education issues.

Janelle Scott, University of California-Berkeley

Janelle Scott is a Professor and the Birgeneau Distinguished Chair in Educational Disparities at the University of California, Berkeley. She is President-elect of the American Educational Research Association, a member of the National Academy of Education, and a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. A former elementary school teacher, Scott conducts research on the politics of educational policy in a multiracial, segregated, and unequal society. She specifically examines how school choice policies, civil rights policies, privatization, and philanthropy affect democratic accountability and equity in public education. Her second book, The Politics of Education Policy in an Era of Inequality: Possibilities for Democratic Schooling (Routledge, 2019) co-authored with Sonya Horsford and Gary Andersonwas honored with a 2020 American Educational Studies Association’s Critics Choice AwardHer other books include School Choice and Diversity: What the Evidence Says (Teachers College Press, 2005) and Racialization and Educational Inequality in Global Perspective (Routledge, 2023), co-edited with Monisha Bajaj.




How to Cite

DeBray, E. H., Finnigan, K. S., George, J., & Scott, J. (2023). Re-centering civil rights in the reauthorization of ESEA: An equitable, ecological, evidence-based framework. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 31.