How Education Policy Went Astray

Half a century ago, President Johnson signed a law—now known as No Child Left Behind—that he believed would solve inequality. But achievement gaps have only grown.

Harvey Georges/AP/The Atlantic

Fifty years ago, on April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson went back to his old schoolhouse next to the Pedernales River in Stonewall, Texas, to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the ESEA. Kate Deadrich Loney, one of Johnson’s former schoolteachers, sat beside him, as did a group of Mexican Americans who were students of the president when he worked as a teacher.

The legislation constituted a huge expansion in the role of the federal government in the classroom, an area of public policy that had traditionally been left to state and local governments. At the heart of the legislation was Title I, the section of the program that earmarked federal funding for poor children—a provision that is still in effect today and whose parameters continue to figure as a perennial subject of debate in Congress. The section stipulated the distribution of funds to state education departments, which then allocated the money to school districts with the highest concentration of low-income children. "By passing this bill," Johnson said upon signing the legislation, "we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children." And this was one of several measures passed that year that aimed to provide better education: Head Start, for example, offered preschool programs for low-income families, while the Higher Education Act set aside federal funding to support aspiring college students.

But the president did not end up accomplishing his goal. Despite the hundreds of millions of federal dollars spent, the widespread challenges faced by children from low-income families in America remain extraordinarily difficult to tackle as they continue to struggle with vastly inadequate educational opportunities. Schools remain underfunded and poorly staffed. The quality of education is often poor, and their teachers are typically overburdened as they deal with the broader range of environmental factors that take a toll on student achievement. Since 2001, the government’s tendency toward focusing on the creation of national standards to measure school achievement, rather than the provision of resources, has also had negative consequences. The high-school dropout rate for children from lower-income families is much higher than it is for wealthier students. In 2012, The New York Times reported that since the 1960s the gap in standardized test scores between kids from lower- and higher-income families had risen by 40 percent.

The correlation between today’s shortcomings in federal education policy and efforts to reduce funding for people in poverty reveals that the country has moved too far away from Johnson’s original vision. Johnson framed the ESEA as a policy designed to divvy up financial resources so that local schools had the money they needed to educate students. The administration, along with the liberals in Congress, also spoke of the education policy as part of a broader package of reforms. All these pieces ideally comprised what Johnson dubbed a "Great Society," where the government would offer a holistic agenda of programs that could reinvigorate entire communities. As they saw it, education was connected to civil rights, urban development, anti-poverty initiatives, and more. Without providing government support for programs that reduced social inequality, they figured, true education reform would never work.

Johnson’s personal experiences surely informed his understanding of education. "As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty," he said upon signing the education bill. When he was a 20-year-old student at Southwest Texas State University, he took a job in Cotulla teaching the children of Mexican American farmworkers, kids who couldn’t afford to bring lunch to school. This experience, he said, emphasized for him the importance of educational opportunity in giving mobility to lower-income Americans. Once he was elected to office and as the battle for civil rights heated up in the early 1960s, he approached education as an essential part of the quest for racial equality. While he was the Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s, the federal government had already taken on a bigger role in higher education, in large part because the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite embarrassed the U.S., eventually prompting legislation in 1958 that authorized about $800 million in federal funding for colleges and universities. That included money for loans, research, and teaching programs.

Johnson’s approach to education policy also grew out of political disputes over federal legislation. Liberal Democrats had been pushing for federal support for the construction of schools since the 1950s; as a result of the Baby Boom, many schools were overcrowded and understaffed. Some schools constructed cheap prefab trailer annexes to house the kids, while in some districts administrators staggered the schedule, breaking kids into shifts so they could come in at different times of the day.

But whenever these politicians proposed federal assistance, that legislation traditionally ran into two obstacles: those presented by both southern and northern, urban Democrats. The former opposed any federal intervention into schools because they feared it would allow the government to deal with race relations—a problem that fell away after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then they wanted the money. "The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed anyway," one administration official reasoned when lobbying a group of southern Democrats for the education bill. The Civil Rights Act included a provision to withhold federal funds from government organizations that remained segregated. Meanwhile, the latter wanted money for private Catholic schools, which were essential to the constituencies of many liberal Democrats in cities like New York but weren’t eligible for the federal school-construction funding. Protestant and Jewish Democrats feared this arrangement would’ve violated the separation of church and state.

The emphasis on education as a social right emerged out of the political knot concerning the Catholic-schools debate. The solution, cooked up by proponents of education reform like the Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, was to focus on poverty. Morse, a former law-school dean and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Education of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, pushed for a student-centered approach to federal policy. This approach eschewed the emphasis on all schools’ infrastructure problems (such as the construction of buildings) and instead focused on the needs of the students from poor families (such as money targeted for kids in low-income districts). In other words, the government wouldn’t provide money for buildings but rather for programs to help students who lacked sufficient resources, and some of this money could go toward students enrolled in private Catholic schools. When this compromise emerged Johnson jumped on it; the proposal—which would become the basis for the ESEA—fulfilled his broader vision of what public education should entail.

Johnson pushed the legislation through Congress with the help of civil-rights activists, whose cause he saw as intertwined with education reform. On January 15, 1965, he told Martin Luther King over the phone: "We've got to try with every force at our command—and I mean every force—to get these education bills that go to those people under $2,000 a year income." With the help of congressional politicians like the Kentucky Representative Carl Perkins, the bill moved through the House and Senate despite continued resistance from Republicans.

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.

Years later, when a Republican president, George W. Bush, teamed up with the Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy to fix federal education policy in 2001, they didn’t end up making things better for the students themselves. The policymakers who helped craft that legislation apparently didn’t give much attention to Johnson’s original vision: that education reform would only work if the government dealt with the entire host of problems confronting the poor. The realization that education reform could only work packaged within a set of policies to combat economic inequality disappeared. The product of that bipartisan compromise—The No Child Left Behind Act, the present-day iteration of the ESEA—sought to impose standards rather than provide resources.

The new testing measures that were implemented to measure whether teachers and administrators were meeting those standards have done little to help the children in the classroom. In The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss recounted the many ways in which testing hurt the classroom experience, ranging from the time that was lost to learning for test preparation to resources being diverted from other educational initiatives. A number of schools were forced to close as a result of not meeting testing standards, many of them in African American and immigrant communities. The emphasis on federal testing strained states where schools remain strapped for money, and the quality of education has arguably diminished—in large part because these measures incentivize teachers to gear their instruction toward standardized tests rather than meaningful, applicable material. Nor does testing address the conditions of social inequality that play a huge role in determining how students will do in the classroom.

The Obama Administration has continued to embrace these policies through its support of the Common Core standards, a controversial program that creates benchmarks that states can then test against to assess proficiency and ensure accountability; some parents are revolting by opting out.

Now new threats to education have approached as Republicans in Congress push for cuts to the federal budget, including steep reductions in Pell grant funding that would further reduce the resources available to poor Americans seeking a higher education.

What is the government to do? Most important will be to return to the more holistic approach through which Johnson and liberals of that era envisioned social policy. Education was always part of a bigger package they were fighting for. Education was part of the Great Society where other programs dealt with issues like health care and the reinvigoration of cities. Without a living wage or better public housing and stronger civic institutions, all the education policies in the world will only have a limited effect on poor communities.

In his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, about the loss of social mobility for low-income children, the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam analyzes how the conditions of lower-income communities have eroded the ability of education to act as a leveling social force. Besides the enormous disparities in the programs offered by wealthier and poorer schools, such as after-school programs, lower-income children often come from communities where there is less social awareness and support from family and peer groups for moving through educational institutions successfully. The education gap, he writes, "is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school, and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challengers—than by what schools do to them." The University of California professor Meredith Phillips, meanwhile, showed that affluent kids tend to participate in day care and extracurricular school programs for 1,300 more hours than do lower-income kids before they reach age 6.

To improve the current policy, Congress must move forward with the current bill in the Senate that revises the No Child Left Behind Act through a reauthorization of the ESEA. While the legislation leaves in place the testing standards and punitive measures for failing schools, it creates a better framework for evaluating what a "failing school" actually is. The legislation gives states more flexibility in determining how to handle schools that are struggling with test scores. Senators Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, and Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, introduced this bill after legislation in the House was stifled earlier this year.

Education reform will only work if the White House and Congress find the will to take up the problem of economic inequality. Without programs to diminish this problem—such as a higher federal minimum wage, legislation to prevent employers from interfering in union elections that can boost membership, and more federal funding for early childhood education—schools serving lower-income children will continue to be housed in struggling communities that don’t provide kids with the social or economic resources that they need to succeed. The government also needs to take a much more aggressive approach to providing incentives for talented college graduates to think about teaching as their future vocation.

Ever since Congress passed its historic legislation in 1965, partisan wrangles and disputes over spending priorities have pushed the government off course. It’s up to voters to pressure the 2016 candidates to outline how they plan to get the country back on track.