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Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

Last Updated: 2018

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was a central component of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty and one of the key legislative achievements of the Great Society. ESEA marked the first major incursion of the federal government into K-12 education policy, an area that historically had been the domain of states and localities, and initiated a new era of federal involvement in school reform. At the heart of ESEA was a powerful equity rationale for federal government activism to promote greater economic and social opportunity. Education received new prominence in America after World War II, as high school completion became the norm and as the GI Bill spurred a dramatic increase in college enrollment. Education gained additional salience in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown ruling on school segregation and the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik (the first orbiting satellite) which underscored the importance of education (and in particular science and engineering).

Johnson capitalized on the growing public awareness of school inequalities and the large Democratic majority in Congress following the 1964 election to push for a massive education bill. LBJ declared a “war on poverty” and thrust the quest for civil rights to the center of his domestic agenda. He identified education as the key to economic and social mobility, but argued that too many schools lacked the resources to provide the necessary skills to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. From the outset, however, Johnson and his advisors were cognizant of the political obstacles—intense opposition to government support for integration, Catholic schools, and centralized administration—that had defeated previous attempts to expand the federal role in education. What had become known as the “three R’s”—race, religion, and the reds—remained a substantial barrier. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, however—and particularly Title VI which outlawed the allocation of federal funds to segregated programs—would prevent federal education bills from becoming entangled with racial issues as they had in 1956 and 1960.

And LBJ’s ESEA proposal ultimately sent federal aid to poor children regardless of the type of school they attended (whether public or private). This plan had the advantage of spreading money around to a majority of congressional districts, to public and private school children, and to state education agencies for implementation purposes, thereby undercutting most of the potential political opposition to the program. By all accounts, President Johnson’s legislative savvy and active lobbying on the bill’s behalf were crucial to its passage. The bill was supported by large majorities in both chambers, passing in 1965 by a vote of 263-153 in the House and 73-18 in the Senate. President Johnson remarked at the time that in one year Congress “did more for the wonderful cause of education in America than all the previous 176 regular sessions of Congress did, put together.” (The Higher Education Act was signed into law the same year.)

ESEA was intended to be primarily a redistributive bill, to supplement school spending in the nation’s poorest communities and to lend federal muscle to efforts to innovate and improve educational services. The centerpiece of this effort and of the legislation itself was the Title I program, which stated that “the Congress hereby declares it to be the policy of the United States to provide financial assistance…to expand and improve…educational programs by various means…which contribute particularly to meeting the special educational needs of educationally deprived children.” Title I was designed to assist communities with a high concentration of low-income families (defined as families earning less than $2,000 annually) by raising per-pupil expenditures. The nature of the legislative process, however, meant that the redistributive edge of ESEA got rubbed off as money was spread around in exchange for political support. Congress authorized an initial appropriation of $1.3 billion for ESEA and the legislation contained five separate titles, although the vast majority of the funds ($1.06 billion) was directed toward Title I. Title II of the ESEA created a five year program to fund the purchase of library resources, instructional material, and textbooks by state educational agencies (which were then to lend them to local public and private school students.) Title III created a five year program of matching grants to local educational agencies to finance supplemental education centers and services. Title IV gave the U.S. Commissioner of Education the authority to enter into contracts with universities and state educational agencies to conduct educational research, surveys, and demonstrations. Finally, Title V provided $25 million over five years to strengthen state departments of education.

The design as well as the substance of ESEA was to have important consequences for American education policy. One of the most significant features of ESEA was what it did not do: it did not provide general federal aid to public schools in the U.S. Instead, ESEA provided “categorical” aid that was targeted to a specific student population—disadvantaged students. The creation of federal categorical programs required that federal educational institutions shift from what had been largely an information gathering and disseminating role to a more supervisory role in the administration of the new federal funds and programs. The combination of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the ESEA dramatically increased federal funding for education both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total education spending. Between 1958 and 1968, for example, federal spending on education multiplied more than ten times, from $375 million to $4.2 billion, and the federal share expanded from less than 3 percent to about 10 percent of all school funding.

The beneficiaries of federal aid to education—particularly teachers’ unions, parent groups, and state and local education agencies—quickly became a powerful political force in Washington and fought hard to protect existing programs and to create new ones. Amendments to the ESEA in 1968 provided funding and new federal programs for disadvantaged students in rural areas, for dropout prevention programs, and for the support of bilingual programs. Congress strengthened the Act in 1974 and reauthorized it in 1978 by wide bipartisan margins. The education proposals of the Nixon and Carter administrations largely continued in the path established by LBJ by adding over 100 new categorical programs in education. Migrant children, children for whom English was a second language, delinquent and neglected children, and children with mental and physical handicaps would all eventually be added to Title I. The result was a growing federal involvement in education but also increasingly inflexible and copious regulations and more intrusive court involvement. President Carter’s creation of a cabinet-level Department of Education in 1979 was symbolic of the growth of the national presence in educational policy. By 1980, the Department administered approximately 500 different federal education programs.

One of the most significant consequences of ESEA was the centralization of education policymaking from the local level to the state and federal levels. From 1965 to 1975, federal funds for elementary and secondary education more than doubled. In addition, between 1960 and 1985, the percentage of total education spending provided by the national government grew from 8 percent to 16 percent. Over the same period, the share of local spending dipped from 51 percent to 31 percent while the state share increased from 41 percent to 55 percent. Eligibility for federal education funds was often conditioned on the provision of state matching funds, the creation of central implementing offices, and the collection of a variety of statistical information which necessitated that state education agencies expand their size and activities and become more institutionalized. This was a clear objective of ESEA, as the original legislation contained funding for the agencies to build up their administrative capacity so that they would be better equipped to handle their new, federally imposed, responsibilities. Due in no small part to the centralization and professionalization of state education agencies mandated by New Deal and Great Society programs, the number of independent school districts in the U.S. dropped from approximately 150,000 in 1900 to 15,000 in 1993. Administrative centralization at the state level also ultimately made education more susceptible to federal regulation by reducing the number of decision-making foci. In practice, centralization also meant that local decision-makers had less and less flexibility in how they ran their schools.

Initially, ESEA was intended to provide additional resources to disadvantaged students with little federal involvement as to how the resources were utilized by state and local education authorities. Over time, however, federal legislative enactments, bureaucratic regulations, and court mandates in education became increasingly numerous and prescriptive, and federal influence over schools grew significantly. Between 1964 and 1976, for example, the number of pages of federal legislation affecting education increased from 80 to 360, while the number of federal regulations increased from 92 in 1965 to nearly 1,000 in 1977. As a result, the political debate over ESEA shifted from whether the federal government had an obligation to promote educational opportunity to the effectiveness of these efforts. By the 1980’s, growing skepticism about the orientation and efficacy of federal education programs led to a backlash against ESEA and fueled a reform movement that promoted administrative flexibility, parental choice, and outcome standards. As part of his “New Federalism” program, Reagan gained passage in 1981 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA) which dramatically reformed many of the provisions of ESEA. The changes reduced the amount of federal funding for education by almost 20 percent, simplified eligibility requirements, and increased flexibility for states in the use of federal education funds.

Republican efforts to roll back federal influence in education ran into fresh evidence that American schools were in very poor shape. A widely-publicized 1983 report on the state of American education, A Nation at Risk, painted a dire portrait of the country’s public schools and highlighted how far American students lagged behind their foreign counterparts on academic achievement tests. It emphasized that the dire performance of American students was a matter of national security, both in our Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and our competition in the global economy. The 1994 reauthorization of ESEA under President Bill Clinton, the Improving America’s Schools Act, marked a significant shift in federal education policy, as it pushed states to adopt academic standards, testing and accountability for school performance. These reforms were given more teeth with the next ESEA reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The centerpiece of NCLB was the requirement, that states, as a condition of accepting federal funds, test all of their children in grades 3-8 in reading and math every year (and science at different points in time), make the results of their tests publicly available with breakdowns by school, race, and level of poverty, and undertake a series of corrective actions to fix failing schools. (See “No Child Left Behind” in this volume.)

The long overdue congressional reauthorization of NCLB/ESEA finally occurred in 2015, with the bi-partisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new law maintains the annual testing and reporting provisions at the heart of NCLB. ESSA’s most significant change from NCLB is around accountability—both in terms of how states identify struggling schools and what states have to do if and when that process reveals that students in a school are performing poorly. This was the area where NCLB was most prescriptive and most controversial, establishing an “adequate yearly progress” system and a specific menu of remedies that states had to choose from to intervene in schools that failed to make “AYP” towards 100 percent student proficiency, and were therefore labeled “in need of improvement.” Under ESSA, states still have to submit accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education but states are given much more latitude in picking their own academic goals and remedies for schools. Predictably, the reduced role of the federal government outlined in ESSA has been met with both praise and alarm, with some hopeful that increased state flexibility will return schools to local control and unleash innovation, while others warn that states are likely to respond by devoting less effort and resources towards improving schools, and particularly those that serve disadvantaged students. Thus while many of NCLB’s key components remain in place and a significant role for the national government in K-12 education policy will continue, it is possible that we may well have witnessed the apogee of federal power in education.

SEE ALSO: EducationNo Child Left Behind Act


Joel Berke and Michael Kirst, Federal Aid to Education (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1972); Hugh Davis Graham, The Uncertain Triumph: Federal Education Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Years (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Julie Roy Jeffrey, Education for Children of the Poor: A Study of the Origins and Implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978); Phillip Meranto, The Politics of Federal Aid to Education in 1965 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1967); McGuinn, P. 2006. No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.