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The Evolution of Johnson's 1965 Education Act

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 was intended as an element of his “War on Poverty” agenda.

The act was designed to address the fact that student achievement decreases as poverty increases. Students from low-income households are, according to the Department of Education, “three times as likely to be low achievers if they attend high-poverty schools as compared to low-poverty schools.”

The original ESEA was intended to compensate for the obstacles to learning created by poverty. It provided funds to be used for professional development, instructional materials, resources to support local educational programs and to encourage parental involvement. States were free to accept the funds in exchange for accepting the criteria set forth in the Act. They were also free to reject the funds and develop their own criteria for addressing the problems of inequality.

Although the proportion of local funding provided by the federal government in 1965 was much lower than it is now, none of the states chose to reject the federal funding and pursue their own agenda for addressing inequalities in public education. Since then, more and more schools have come to rely on Title I monies. In 2000, when the ESEA became NCLB, federal money made up 1.5% of local school budgets. In 2017, federal funding for local schools has risen to about 9% of the local budget.

Since 1965, ESEA has been modified, renamed, and extended to include civil rights issues, something that the bipartisan framers of the original Act presumably thought to be irrelevant. They probably assumed that the civil rights of children attending public schools were already guaranteed by the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The ESEA was designed to be reviewed and adjusted every five years. The review in 2000 resulted in so many changes that the Act was rechristened: No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The changes in this version of the ESEA were so radical as to create an unrealistic and punitive instrument that would change the way Americans perceive public education and reduce the ability of states to shape local education systems according to local needs.

Next week: The Lingering Effects of NCLB

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