President Lyndon B Johnson

Kennedy’s failure was Johnson’s success. President Kennedy was unable to get his general aid package passed because of the several previously discussed reasons. It was therefore left for President Johnson, who, continuing the legacy of President Kennedy, found a way to have such a measure passed.

The groundwork for President Johnson’s War on Poverty was laid very early in his administration. By the end of 1964 he had already obtained passage of several of his education initiatives. Included in these were the Vocational Education Act and the Higher Education Act of 1963.

He was now prepared to introduce his major piece of legislation on education. He had witnessed first-hand Kennedy’s struggle to get a comprehensive bill on education through Congress. He treaded warily with his legislation, carefully avoiding the Kennedy pitfalls.

President Johnson believed that the aid to education offered by the NDEA and the various impact-aid programs were insufficient to meet the needs of the growing number of underprivileged students. His response to this was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) 1965.

Carl Kaestle1 claims that the Johnson administration presented the ESEA as a “response to a crisis of poverty and racial disharmony that could be alleviated by educational opportunity,” and it appears that in this way he was able to capitalize on the mood of the country at that time.

While the NDEA found immediate passage because of its defense title and its apparent commitment to education funding for national security, ESEA had to be cleverly crafted and an

ingenuous compromise had to be devised so that the bill could be made more appealing to the various factions who previously opposed federal aid to education.

The dilemma of federal aid to parochial schools was circumvented by attaching the school-aid bill to impact aid bills and thus granting funds to schools based on total student enrollments rather than just public-school enrollments.2

The ESEA was the centerpiece of President Johnson’s plan for the Great Society. It was a new commitment to “educational equity” as it greatly increased the federal financial involvement in elementary and secondary school education.3

Most historians believe that ESEA was in fact an attempt to come to terms with the civil rights movement and as a result focused on the less fortunate in society. Lappan and Wanko4 say that the issue of educating children who had been underserved became a lever for the creation and passage of the ESEA.

Whereas the NDEA emphasized science and mathematics, the ESEA was a federal response to the significant social change taking place in American society.

Even though there was still much opposition to federal aid, the bold step taken in that direction by NDEA greatly facilitated the passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This Act, also called Public Law 89-10, was signed seven years after the NDEA by President L.B. Johnson in 1965. In addressing Congress, he said,

“By passing this Bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children. We put into the hands of our youth more than 30 million new books and into many of our schools their first libraries.

We reduce the terrible time lag in bringing new teaching techniques into the nation’s classrooms. We strengthen State and local agencies which bear the burden and the challenge of better education. And we rekindle the revolution—the revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance.”5 What a great time that was!!

From 1961 to 1981, that is, from the beginning of the Kennedy era to the end of the Carter era, much effort was made to improve the lot of those students who were underprivileged. The focus of this period was to assist the underserved in society.

This focus on the disadvantaged started with the failed attempts by President Kennedy and materialized with the ESEA in President Johnson’s first term. Many African-American, Hispanic students, and poor whites, as well as members of other minority groups, especially in inner-city areas, were educationally disadvantaged because of social and economic conditions.

Historian McGuinn6 suggests that the ESEA was meant primarily to be a redistributive bill, intended “to put a floor under the nation’s poorest communities.” It could be said, therefore, that ESEA was critically important for two reasons:

a) it created several educational opportunities in schools that serve children in lower socio- economic settings;

b) it represented a departure from the stance the United States had taken throughout its history against any intrusion of the federal government into the educational affairs of states and local communities7.

Although the ESEA required states to evaluate their programs periodically and to report the results to the federal commissioner of education, no one seemed to enforce this requirement.

While the program was intended for the neediest in society, wealthy districts were able to manipulate the system to obtain funds.

This “led to worries that the ESEA might become a financial delivery system with no real effect on school programs or student achievement in low-income areas.”8

The ESEA was extremely attractive to states and school districts because its five programs provided “previously unimaginable sums of aid for schools.”9 According to McGuinn10 Title I was the centerpiece of the ESEA. It aimed to improve not only educational opportunities, but educational outcomes, for disadvantaged children.

This program received $1.06 billion of the initial $1.3 billion appropriated for ESEA. The money was to be used for such things as equipment, constructing classrooms, and hiring additional staff.

Title II provided federal grants to improve library services and to purchase multimedia equipment, instructional materials, and textbooks to be loaned to public and nonpublic schools. Title III provided federal grants to improve language acquisition. Title IV provided federal grants to improve research in effective teaching strategies. Title V funded the expansion of state departments of education.

A 1966 amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) created a new program, Title VI to provide grants for handicapped children. In 1970 Title VI was broken from ESEA and expanded to form a separate Education of the Handicapped Act. This later became the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) 1997.

Although the total public education population declined between 1968 and 1986, the number of children in special education programs in the United States increased over the period from 2.3 million to 4.3 million. Hence the growth of the separate program to assist them was necessary. 11

McBeath, Reyes, and Ehrlander12 claim that in the judgment of many scholars ESEA has undergone three distinct phases. The first was during the initial period of operation, “it projected bold expectations, but was unclear with respect to its objectives, imprecise in its expectations, and inept in its administrative actions.”

The second phase saw policymakers attempting to fix the problems revealed in its implementation. In the third phase there was recognition of the need for local diversity in approach and implementation style.

The major criticism of ESEA however, is the fact that although its intention was to provide support for the education of socioeconomically disadvantaged children, it has been consistently unable to close the achievement gap between poor and affluent students.

The tasks of closing the achievement gap appears to be quite daunting as the achievement gap persists up to the present. President Johnson, however, did very well in his effort to narrow the gap.

In the next post I will examine the efforts of President Richard Nixon.

1. Kaestle, Federal Aid to Education Since World War II, 2001, 20

2. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006, 30; New York State Education Department, Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2004: A Brief Synopsis, 2006, 17.

3. Goertz, The Federal Role in an Era of Standards-Based Reform, 2001, 51

4. Lappan and Wanko, The Changing Roles and Priorities of the Federal Government in Mathematics Education, 2003, 911

5. Johnson, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Remarks in Johnson City, 1965
6. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006, 31
7 Lappan and Wanko, The Changing Roles and Priorities of the Federal Government in Mathematics Education, 2003, 911-12

8. New York State Education Department, Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2004: A Brief Synopsis, 2006, 18

9. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006,

10. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006,

11. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 2006
12. McBeath, Reyes, and Ehrlander, Education Reform in the American States, 2008, 14