Education Letter to the Editor

Segregation, Civil Rights, And Passage of the ESEA

April 26, 2005 1 min read

To the Editor:

I, too, am celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. But Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s brief recitation of its history omits the importance of race and religion in the enactment of this landmark legislation (“A Commitment to Equity,” Commentary, April 13, 2005).

Attempts to pass federal aid to education since World War II had foundered on the twin shoals of race and religion. Bills for school construction were routinely stymied in Congress by the Powell Amendment, attached by Adam Clayton Powell, the first black chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Federal aid was not to be spent building racially separate schools after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Religious leaders, prominently officials of the U.S. Catholic Church, lobbied against any aid that did not also include parochial schools.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 broke the logjam on race. Title VI of that act prohibits awards of federal financial assistance to recipients that discriminate based on race—in this case, that operate racially segregated schools in contravention of Brown. Lyndon B. Johnson, U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel, and other members of the administration broke the logjam on religion by devising a formula for dispensing federal aid based on the number of poor children resident in a school attendance area, meaning children who attended both public and parochial schools. That made children in religiously operated schools eligible, as they are today.

Until the ESEA, there was no federal aid to speak of for local school districts. The threat to withhold grants that didn’t exist meant little. But Title I money was a different story. The Johnson administration rushed to allocate the money, and Commissioner Keppel raced to issue Title VI guidelines defining legally acceptable desegregation plans that, if adopted, made local districts eligible for federal financial assistance.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act desegregated the South, inaugurating significant educational advances for black Americans.

Phyllis McClure

Washington, D.C.