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Volume 31, Number 3
May/June 2015

Rethinking ESEA at 50

An interview with Jack Jennings


Fifty years ago, in April 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was signed into law, ushering in the modern era of federal involvement in local schooling. Perhaps no one has had a better perch from which to watch the evolution of federal education policy in the years since than Jack Jennings, who served for 27 years as a subcommittee staff director and general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor and then as founder and CEO of the Center on Education Policy. In his newest book, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2015), Jennings traces the evolution of the law and its subsequent amendments, including the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Recently, Jennings talked to Harvard Education Letter Editor Nancy Walser about the history of ESEA and its future.

What was the significance of ESEA when it was signed 50 years ago?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 had its origins in a popular demand that public schools improve. After World War II, a “baby boom” resulted in crowded and strained schools, and so parents and others demanded action from the politicians. Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the Congress responded by finding ways for the federal government to help with that task.

This was a breakthrough in national policy because there had been many impediments to adding federal support to state and local efforts to improve education. In passing ESEA, President Johnson and the Congress had to overcome a strong, two-century-old tradition of local control of education. But it became clear that 14,000 local school districts couldn’t improve education on their own since they varied so much in resources, and state governments had limited their role to overseeing state formulas for distributing state funds.

An additional consideration is that ESEA must be viewed in the context of the 1960s—an era of campaigns to eliminate poverty and discrimination. The new education law and its companion programs were meant to bring greater equity to society. Most of the new federal funding was dedicated to providing additional services to improve the education of students from low-income families, students learning English, students with disabilities, and so forth.

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