Currently, Congress is considering bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The new iteration of ESEA must ensure that our schools are safe and equitable, and that our students are able to learn and thrive in positive school climates — but not all versions of the bills pending in Congress are equal.

Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a statewide parent and youth advocacy organization dedicated to ending the school-to-prison pipeline, has been working with the national Dignity in Schools Campaign to ensure that all students have the right to a safe and quality education. This means reducing suspensions and expulsions, eliminating school-based arrests and ending exclusionary discipline practices that push students out of school.

Nowhere is this more relevant than here in Louisiana, where an unprecedented number of people are imprisoned and school graduation rates are depressingly low. According to national data, 6.8 percent of African-American students are suspended — over three times the rate of white students — despite data showing that African-American students do not misbehave more frequently or more severely.

There are many ideas about how to improve our schools but one thing is clear: Students cannot achieve if they are pushed out of class and missing valuable instruction time.

When we create a zero-tolerance environment where students “walk on the line” and are expected to leave behind their culture and community, and then are drilled with endless test prep, we are saying to them: We do not expect you to succeed.

Education does not happen in a vacuum; students are not empty vessels to be filled. They come to school with histories, opinions, strengths, flaws and traumas. We need to reinvest in our students’ neighborhoods and in community-based organizations, and we need to insist that parents play an active and vital role in our schools.

FFLIC strongly supports the continued role of the federal government in holding states accountable for providing quality educational opportunities and pushing toward greater equality. This accountability should include publicly funded charter schools, of which Louisiana has an unprecedented number — with about 134 charters educating over 70,000 of Louisiana’s children. Whatever our politics around charters and the euphemism of “choice,” we should agree that charters should be held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools; this means not disproportionately disciplining African-American students.

ESEA should include funding for restorative justice practices and Positive Behavioral Interventions Supports, which would help teachers and administrators educate everyone who walks through their school doors. We need an ESEA bill that respects the diversity of learners and promotes creativity, innovation and caring school climates that do not push students out of school, but that push them to excel.

Gina Womack

executive director, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children

New Orleans