Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Major Acts of Congress)
Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) (P.L. 89-10), the most expansive federal education bill ever passed to date, on April 9, 1965, as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty." A former teacher who had witnessed poverty's impact on his students, Johnson believed that equal access to education was vital to a child's ability to lead a productive life.
Prior presidents' commitments to improving the educational system also inspired the law's passage. American leaders began discussing the need for a competitive technology industry during President Harry S. Truman's administration, at the beginning of the Cold War. As the Cold War progressed during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, improving the educational system came to be understood as an imperative. The Soviet Union's successful launching of the Sputnik spacecraft on October 4, 1957, raised concerns that the Soviet school system was superior to America's and could produce superior scientists.
President Kennedy developed a number of proposals to ensure that American students were competitive with those in other countries and that every American received a good education, regardless of religious, racial, or class background. After Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, President Johnson reviewed and revised Kennedy's proposed legislative agenda. Congress derived the bill that became the ESEA from Kennedy's proposals. President Johnson orchestrated the introduction of the ESEA bill in Congress and its rapid passage into law; the ESEA passed in only eighty-seven days, with little debate and no amendments. The law became the educational centerpiece of Johnson's legislative agenda, the "Great Society," and in particular, his "War on Poverty" programs. The ESEA was designed to address the problem of inequality in education that had been laid bare by civil rights activists who lobbied for passage of the landmark anti-discrimination statute, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Congress has reauthorized the ESEA several times since its initial passage, most recently in 2002. The law consists of five titles, pursuant to which the federal government provides funding to 90 percent of the nation's public and parochial schools. The first and most important is Title I, which provides funding and guidelines for educating "educationally disadvantaged" children. Congress budgeted more than 80 percent of the monies originally appropriated under the ESEA for Title I programs; in 2002, the federal government allocated over $8 billion to fund Title I programs. These programs are intended to meet the special educational needs of "educationally deprived" children and school districts with high concentrations of such students, who typically are from poor families. Title II provides money to purchase library materials and audio/visual equipment. Title II includes a provision stating that the government can have no say in what specific materials libraries purchase; Congress incorporated this provision into the original law in response to concerns that the federal government would regulate the content of materials purchased with Title II funds. Title III provides funding for programs designed to meet the educational needs of students "at risk" of school failure, including after-school, radio and television, counseling, and foreign language programs. Title IV provides funding for college and university research on education, and Title V provides funding to individual state departments of education. The ESEA's final title, Title VI, lays out the law's general provisions.
The enactment of the ESEA revolutionized the federal government's role in education. Prior to the law's passage, educational policy-making had been the near exclusive domain of state and local governments. However, part of the ESEA's legacy is a fierce debate over whether the federal government has become overly involved in regulating local school districts' affairs through programs like the ESEA. Moreover, some question whether Title I's costly programs actually raise student performance. Nevertheless, cash-strapped school districts continue to seek and accept ESEA funding.
Bailey, Stephen K., and Edith K. Mosher. ESEA: The Office of Education Administers a Law. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
Jeffrey, Julie R. Education for the 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.
Jennings, John F., ed. National Issues in Education: Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa International, 1995.
McLaughlin, Milbery W. Evaluation and Reform: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Title I. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1975.
U.S. Department of Education. Index of Legislation Directory. <http:www.ed.gov/legislation/>.