School & District Management

40 Years After ESEA, Federal Role in Schools Is Broader Than Ever

April 12, 2005 7 min read
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If President Lyndon B. Johnson were alive today, he might be a little surprised to see what’s become of the federal schools legislation he signed into law 40 years ago this week.

President Johnson at 1965 signing, with his childhood teacher Kate Deadrich Loney.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been amended and rewritten many times since April 11, 1965, the day Mr. Johnson stood before the former one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas, he once attended to make it the law of the land.

In many ways, the middle-aged law barely resembles the infant born in the heyday of 1960s idealism.

The statute is much fatter now, covering far more programs. The federal government, under Congress’ 2001 reauthorization of the ESEA that is better known as the No Child Left Behind Act, has attached a lot more demands in return for federal aid, demands that focus on testing students and holding schools accountable for their academic progress.

But the core mission espoused in the 1965 statute—helping disadvantaged students improve academically through the cornerstone Title I program—holds true.

“The Great Society established the federal role in education as an equity role, as a role of the federal government trying to help kids who were neglected for some reason or another in schools,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and advocacy group.

“And that has remained as the federal role, even in the guise of No Child Left Behind. … That legacy remains,” said Mr. Jennings, who as a longtime top aide to Democrats on the House education committee helped rewrite the ESEA several times.

Conceived as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, the original statute was focused primarily on delivering federal aid to help level the educational playing field for poor and minority children. And Mr. Johnson—a former teacher at a predominantly Mexican-American school in Cotulla, Texas—had high hopes.

“By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children,” he told the crowd assembled that spring day in his home state. “I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.”

Nearly four decades later, President Bush offered his own optimistic take on what the No Child Left Behind Act would mean, and, like Mr. Johnson, traveled to a school to sign his prized legislation.

“[T]oday begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country,” Mr. Bush said in 2002 at Hamilton (Ohio) High School. “As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”

A Sea Change

The ESEA at 40

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has seen plenty of changes over the past 40 years. The timeline highlights several key alterations, as well as two U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to the law.

1965: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ushering in a major expansion of the federal role in schools. The centerpiece of the new law is the Title I program for disadvantaged students.

1968: Congress expands the ESEA with new programs and titles, including programs for migrant children, neglected or delinquent children, and the Bilingual Education Act.

1970: In response to widespread reports of misused federal funds, the law is changed to clamp down on how Title I aid is spent. The legislation, signed by President Richard M. Nixon, adds demands that the federal aid “supplement, not supplant” money spent by states and localities, and that Title I schools receive state and local aid “comparable” to that received by other schools in the state.

1978: In a reauthorization signed by President Jimmy Carter, Title I aid for the first time can be spent “schoolwide” if at least 75 percent of children in the school are eligible for the aid.

1981: President Ronald Reagan pushes hard for a rewrite of the law consolidating many programs into a block grant, though the reauthorization main-tains Title I—renamed Chapter 1—as a separate program. It also reduces regulatory and paperwork requirements for states and districts. This reauthorization ushered in a period of depressed spending under the federal law.

1985: The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote in Aguilar v. Felton, rules that the practice of sending public school teachers into religious schools violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. As a result, students from religious schools must travel to mobile vans, public schools, or other neutral sites to receive Title I services.

1988: The law takes important steps toward the kind of student testing and accountability later expanded upon. Districts must annually assess, based on standardized-test scores, the effectiveness of Chapter 1 programs in schools. Program improvement plans are required for each school that does not make substantial progress toward raising student achievement.

1994: President Bill Clinton signs the Improving America’s Schools Act, a reauthorization of the ESEA that requires states to develop standards and aligned assessments for all students. Districts also must identify schools not making “adequate yearly progress” and take steps to improve them, though the law is far less strict than the 2001 version in defining AYP and applying consequences to schools that don’t make it.

1997: The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote in Agostini v. Felton, overturns its 1985 ruling by deciding that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit school districts from sending teachers into religious schools to provide Title I ser-vices to needy students.

2002: President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which expands the ESEA’s testing requirements and introduces an aggres-sive federal role in holding states and school districts accountable for showing improved student performance. It also requires all public school classrooms to have “highly qualified” teachers.

Even if, next to the No Child Left Behind Act, the original law seems a tad timid, in 1965 it brought a sea change for federal involvement in schooling. By some estimates, federal K-12 spending tripled between 1964 and 1966.

The ESEA represented “the first really direct reach into [all] school districts in the United States,” Harold Howe II, the U.S. commissioner of education from 1965 to 1968, told Education Week in a 1999 interview.

Historians credit President Johnson and his administration with a masterful performance in navigating the legislation through Congress in less than 100 days.

At a White House ceremony three days after signing the legislation, Mr. Johnson made clear how high a priority it was for him.

“I worked harder and longer on this measure than on any measure I have ever worked on since I came to Washington in 1931—and I am proud of it,” he said.

Of course, the ESEA wasn’t the only aspect of President Johnson’s agenda to battle poverty. Other key initiatives from that time included the Head Start preschool program and the Higher Education Act. And the ESEA quickly grew, with programs added later in the 1960s for children with disabilities, for students needing bilingual education, and those facing other educational challenges.

Over the years, several presidents and countless federal lawmakers have sought to put their imprint on the ESEA. The law’s formula for doling out Title I aid, for instance, has been relentlessly tweaked. Some early changes to the law responded to the misuse of federal money by schools, including to construct swimming pools.

Especially in the late 1980s and on until today, much of the focus has shifted to finding ways for the federal government to hold states and districts accountable for showing better academic results, as the same achievement gaps for poor and minority children that were obvious in the 1960s persist.

“Basically, the attitude people had [when the law first passed] was, just give the school people good money, and good things will happen,” said Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant education secretary in President George H.W. Bush’s administration and the author of a 2004 book on the history of the federal role in schooling, Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age.

The 1988 reauthorization—signed by President Reagan, who earlier had consolidated many federal school programs and oversaw cuts in education spending—began to focus on educational outcomes, including demands for testing and accountability. That emphasis grew more focused and intensive with President Clinton’s Goals 2000 initiative and the 1994 ESEA reauthorization, which mandated that states develop uniform academic standards for all their students and aligned assessments to measure student progress.

The move toward testing and accountability has been ratcheted up significantly with the ESEA’s No Child Left Behind incarnation.

“I think it’s been a natural evolution, frankly,” said Mr. Cross. “If anything, what I would be surprised about is that it took almost 40 years to get as serious about it as we are.”

One significant change is the law’s sweep: The current legislation in various ways affects all public schools and students, not just disadvantaged youths.

“The No Child Left Behind Act, building on Clinton’s legacy, clearly has expanded the federal role beyond children at risk to affect all children,” said Mr. Jennings. “The federal role has evolved to be much broader, but still that at its heart is an equity concern.”

When Congress first passed the ESEA 40 years ago, it did so despite resistance from several quarters, including Southern Democrats who feared federal interference in racial-segregation practices, and conservative Republicans, who feared Washington would seize control of education decisions.

Given the latter group, David S. Seeley, an education professor at the City University of New York who worked in the U.S. Office of Education when the ESEA was first passed, sees some irony in President Bush’s driving the No Child Left Behind Act.

“There was still a lot of fear that federal money would mean intrusion into local school systems,” he said of sentiments in 1965. “Now we come along with a conservative Republican pushing through a bill that has far more intrusion into local education policy than anything that could have been imagined in the ’60s.”

Johnson ‘Really Cared’

Marshall S. Smith, a former deputy education secretary under President Clinton and now the education policy director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., said the law has seen an ebb and flow in federal control.

“There’s been a struggle in Title I for 40 years,” he said. “In the late ’60s, it took the form of misuse of funds … so they put in a whole bunch of fiscal regulations.”

“What those things did was to begin to drive the program,” spurring schools to pull disadvantaged children out of the classroom for special courses often taught by less-qualified instructors, Mr. Smith said. “It was just an awful consequence.”

Mr. Smith said he worries that the No Child Left Behind law’s demands are creating new problems.

“The present law is in its most top-down manifestation, and has sets of requirements that actually tie the hands of people in the schools in many ways,” he said.

Historians say President Johnson would be dismayed to see how, four decades after he launched his Great Society programs, poverty is so persistent, and poor and minority children still lag well behind the education curve.

“The one thing about Johnson,” said Roger Wilkins, a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., “as hard as he was on Vietnam, lying to the American people in an awful way, the good Johnson was poverty and race and things like that.”

“He really cared deeply, profoundly,” said Mr. Wilkins, who served in several posts during the Johnson administration.

It’s hard to guess what Mr. Johnson would make of the aggressive federal role under the No Child Left Behind Act.

But Maris A. Vinovskis, an education historian at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, said that while many lawmakers from that time would be “horrified” at the law’s mandates, Mr. Johnson might well be of another mind.

“He didn’t have any qualms about states’ rights and the use of central-government power,” Mr. Vinovskis said. “What Johnson would have done [would be] whatever it takes to make this work, money or whatever is needed. … He would have the hubris to think that his solutions, or his proposed solutions, are right.”


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