The law constituted a historic intervention of federal power into elementary- and secondary-school education. In addition to Title I, the Title II section authorized $100 million for library material and textbooks; Title III, meanwhile, authorized another $100 million for supplementary education services, including labs, vocational classes, and mobile libraries.
But the legislation, as Johnson seemed to recognize, wouldn't suffice without further reforms. At the time that Congress passed this education legislation, it was approving a slate of other domestic programs to expand opportunities for the middle class, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, rent subsidies for low-income housing, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, the Model Cities program, and the Urban Mass Transportation Act.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, according to Elizabeth Casico and Sarah Reber in their chapter in Legacies of the War on Poverty, federal spending through Title I diminished the differences between poorer and wealthier districts. The legislation also provided the federal government with leverage so it could ensure the desegregation of southern schools.
While the basic vision behind the ESEA was sound, the policy also introduced new problems. For one, the legislation did not provide for adequate oversight of how money was used, and the guidelines governing how funds would be allocated and applied were poorly crafted, so in coming decades many school administrators would use the money for purposes other than they were intended—a practice that continues to this day in some districts. Money that was supposed to be used for new programs helping poor children was instead taken to cover funding gaps in the budget.
More importantly, however, the conservative backlash against the Great Society (which started as early as the 1966 midterm elections) undercut the liberals’ effort to pass the rest of his agenda, including greater funding for anti-poverty initiatives and robust urban redevelopment programs, and resulted in budgetary cuts to existing domestic programs like that outlined in the Economic Opportunity Act. According to Johnson, inferior schooling was only one challenge facing children living in poor communities, and educational enhancements couldn’t have the intended impact unless other barriers were lifted. Classroom improvement was contingent on improvements to housing and other aspects of community life.
But as the costs of Vietnam escalated, congressional conservatives forced Johnson to choose between guns (military spending) or butter (domestic spending) taking a toll on efforts to enhance the living situations of poor kids. In the tug-of-war that ensued the White House made the war its priority. As a result, political attention to the environments in which students lived only diminished. Conservative policymakers during the Reagan era prompted further policy shifts, pushing priorities away from what they criticized as reckless welfare spending.