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What Would L.B.J. Make of the NCLB Act?

By David J. Hoff — September 20, 2007 1 min read

If Lyndon B. Johnson were alive today, he’d probably be leading the chorus of those who say the No Child Left Behind Act is insufficiently funded.

The 36th president, who proposed the original version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and signed it into law in 1965, envisioned that funding under the ESEA would quickly become a large portion of school districts’ budgets, according to a former federal official who helped write the law.

“He would be terribly disappointed that the funding is as low as it is,” Samuel Halperin, who was an assistant U.S. commissioner of education in 1965, said in an interview Sept. 17.

That morning, Mr. Halperin was among dozens of Mr. Johnson’s family members and former aides who attended a ceremony that marked the naming of the Department of Education’s headquarters for the Texas Democrat. Formerly called Federal Building 6, the building near the U.S. Capitol is now the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. Congress approved the honor in March.

President Johnson had envisioned that ESEA funding would grow quickly after the law’s enactment, reaching within five years the equivalent of $30 billion in today’s dollars, Mr. Halperin said. In the current fiscal year, the NCLB law’s programs are budgeted at $23.6 billion.

Federal funding “would have been much more pervasive,” said Mr. Halperin, 77, who is now semiretired but remains a senior fellow at the American Youth Policy Forum in Washington.

Even if Mr. Johnson would have been disappointed in today’s funding levels, Mr. Halperin speculated that the famed legislative dealmaker might have supported the testing and accountability measures under the 5½-year-old law, the latest version of the ESEA.

“I think he would have endorsed them, but not at the expense of losing the bill,” Mr. Halperin said.

Such provisions weren’t seriously considered when Congress wrote the original law, he said.

First, the technology didn’t exist then to analyze and report test scores as quickly as today. Second, lawmakers trusted that educators would make good decisions with the federal money provided to them.

“People believed that educators knew what to do,” Mr. Halperin said.

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