ESEA at 45

When President Lyndon Johnson was ready to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) on April 11, 1965, he traveled to the former one-room school he attended as a child and invited his teacher to join him.

The purpose of the law, he said, is to “bridge the gap between hopelessness and hope for more than five million educationally deprived children.” As a young man, LBJ had taught low-income, Mexican immigrant children in Texas, and he never forgot them. (Read NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s op-ed on The Huffington Post about the anniversary.)

How was ESEA going to accomplish LBJ’s Great Society goal? By providing federal dollars to schools to help them educate low-income children. School funding in America had always been—and still is—mostly a state and local matter, but in the two years after passage of ESEA, federal school funds more than doubled.

Neither Johnson nor most other ESEA supporters thought a school could beat poverty all by itself. So ESEA was part of LBJ’s War On Poverty, which also included a broad array of social programs.

And achievement score gaps did shrink dramatically—by a third to a half by the late 1980s.

At that point, however, progress on the achievement gaps stalled. Meanwhile, most of the War On Poverty programs were dismantled and progress in ending racial isolation stopped.

ESEA has been reauthorized and renamed several times. It remains the biggest source of federal school dollars. But in 2002, renamed No Child Left Behind, the law morphed into a vehicle for punishing educators if their students score low on standardized tests.

Today, one third of the nation’s schools bear the label of “in need of improvement,” generally translated in the press as “failing.” That label does not distinguish between schools that are really falling down on the job, and those that are doing heroic work with students who used to be forgotten by society.

Scores on the only national testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show no real advance in the eight years since NCLB was signed by former President George Bush.

Now, NCLB is overdue for another round of renaming and reauthorization. NEA, as the organization of the majority of American teachers and hundreds of thousands of education support professionals, has sent Congress detailed recommendations for changes that would return ESEA to its role of helping to close achievement gaps, instead of punishing the people who do the work.