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Published: May 28, 2011

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA)

An all-embracing, six-part federal law to improve American public school education by direct federal intervention. A central element of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s WAR ON POVERTY, ESEA had six major goals, each of which was described in a separate section or “title.”
Title I was the most far-reaching in that it provided funds to local educational agencies (LEAs), including schools, social service agencies and other organizations for such programs as remedial reading, compensatory mathematics and special programs. Funds were apportioned according to the number of low-income children in the LEA’s area. By 2005, Title I was providing almost $15 billion worth of federal funds to almost 10 million children.
Title II provided funds for school libraries and for textbooks in public and private schools (see BOARD OF EDUCATION OF CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT V. ALLEN), Title III provided grants and funds for innovative educational programs and Title IV provided funds for educational research and training. Title V provided funds to state educational agencies and Title VI provided funds for ESEA administration.
In 1968, Congress amended the act to include bilingual education and extend its reach to handicapped children and migrant children and to guarantee non–English-speaking children the right to study in their native languages while they learned English. In 1970, Congress learned that local communities were misusing Title I funds to construct swimming pools and make other capital improvements, and it altered the law to require state and local governments to provide matching funds for all federal funds received. In 1972, Congress amended the act to ban GENDER DISCRIMINATION, and four years later it extended the reach of the original legislation to vocational education, higher education and a variety of other programs. In 1978, Congress made its first intrusion into state control of the classroom by adding a comprehensive basic skills program to Elementary and Secondary Education Act to improve pupil achievement.
In 1993, President Clinton amended ESEA with the Improving America’s Schools Act, which tied federal aid to the development of standards by each state to assess all students and ensure that schools make “adequate yearly progress” in improving education standards. A year later, Congress further extended the reach of the original act to include education of the severely handicapped and American Indians.
It was in 2001, however, that Congress imposed the most far-reaching federal controls on American public school education. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, the $10 billion NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT OF 2001 (NCLB) amended ESEA by imposing testing requirements on all states and public school districts and requiring every school to demonstrate year-to-year improvements in academic performance—or face loss of federal subsidies. Aimed especially at schools with disadvantaged children, NCLB allows parents in failing public schools to transfer their children to other schools or charter schools, and it allows states to replace the curricula and staffs of schools that make no academic progress for four consecutive years. The long-term NCLB scheme called for spending $1 billion a year on reading programs built on an agenda called READING FIRST, under which K-3 teachers and reading coaches across the nation are being retrained to use research-based teaching methods designed especially for disadvantaged children. To continue receiving grants, reading instruction programs must show progress in student reading proficiency within two years. But by 2007, nearly 30% of the nearly 62,000 schools that reported had failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” thus converting NCLB into one of the most controversial new elements of Elementary and Secondary Education Act. With student academic proficiency ranging from well above national norms in northeastern states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont to abysmally low levels in states such as Hawaii, New Mexico and Mississippi, educators across the nation had long called for establishing minimum national academic standards. Constitutionalists, however, cite the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, which leaves to the states all powers not expressly conveyed to the federal government by the first nine amendments. The word education does not appear in any of those amendments and has therefore always fallen under state purview.
With the acceptance of federal grants to education, however, school districts have, for many years, tacitly accepted the conditions that come attached to any loan or grant in aid. Indeed, the federal government now provides about $55 billion, or 10%, of what states and local districts spend on public elementary and secondary education, leaving states with little choice but to accept the conditions of NCLB or forfeit federal aid. A small number of school districts have done just that—in Connecticut, Illinois, Vermont and Virginia, among others. Some states challenged the law on the basis that the federal government underestimated the costs of administering the law and forces states and local school districts to spend local tax dollars to enforce a federal law. A federal court rejected the challenge on the grounds that the states and local districts had the option of withdrawing from NCLB (and, of course, forfeiting federal aid). Some districts, however, have developed ways to pervert the intent of NCLB by transferring the lowest achievers from failing public schools into CHARTER SCHOOLS, which are not covered by NCLB restraints. By shedding their poorest achievers, the public schools can then demonstrate the year-to-year gains in overall academic achievement required to obtain hefty NCLB grants.
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