Fifty Years of Federal Aid to Schools: Back into the Future?

Jack Jennings*

Excerpts from an article appearing in Volume 3 Education Law & Policy Review 2016

In 1965, the federal government began to provide major financial aid for education to states and local school districts. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of that year (ESEA)1, the embodiment of this new federal role, was the focus of high hope that it would bring about broad improvement in American education. As President Lyndon Johnson said when he signed the legislation into law: “As President of the United States, I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.”2

Fifty years later, in 2015, President Barack Obama commented on the effects of federal school aid: “It didn’t always consider the specific needs of each community. It led to too much testing during classroom time. It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kinds of results that we wanted to see.” Obama gave these views in signing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest amendments to ESEA.3 The President also noted that the goals of the former law were right; but, in practice, it often fell short.4

What happened during those fifty years to go from such high hopes to such harsh criticisms? The law that President Obama signed removed federal requirements on states and school districts and vested key decisions in state and local officials.

Have we come full circle after fifty years of federal involvement in the schools — from local and state control before ESEA back to local and state control under ESSA? Is the past the future, or is there another possibility?

This article will explore those issues. After briefly reviewing the half century history of federal aid in order to understand how it became what President Obama described, the article will suggest a way to measure the performance of states and school districts as they use the freedom the new law provides them. In case that progress turns out to be inadequate, the article will also propose a way for the local, state and federal governments to work together to improve the schools

(See Education Law & Policy Review Vol 3 2016 for full article)

President Johnson would undoubtedly be disappointed with the criticisms of federal aid to education that his successor, Barack Obama, voiced on signing the latest amendments to Johnson’s prized Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But, Johnson would not become defensive and try to divert criticisms. Rather, he would ask what could be done to make ESEA more useful in the battle to improve education. That has been the principal purpose of this article — to get beyond the criticisms and to find a different, more effective way to improve the schools.

The country is still mired in a policy grounded in getting increased scores on state tests, achieved by whatever means, as the way to improve education. Success is declared when an overly rigid federal accountability statute is replaced by a less forceful accountability law. The difference is that the consequences for not raising scores are decided by state authorities and not by federal ones.

The proposal made in this article is meant to get us to think differently. To start the debate, this proposal sets as the objective the improvement of the daily interaction between students and teachers. This purpose can only be achieved if local school districts, the states, and the federal government work together and not at cross-purposes with one another. It also is best done using research as a guide to what has been shown to work. This would be different than in the past.

Since I worked on national legislation for nearly three decades, I am well-aware that what is proposed here in all its detail would be difficult to pass in Congress at the present time. This concept would, though, present a vision of what American schools should be. Every child should be prepared for school. Every teacher should be qualified, well trained, and supported. Schools must teach challenging subject matter, and every child’s education should be adequately funded.

This ideal situation will not be achieved today or tomorrow, but it is the type of education the country should strive for. My hope is that others will be emboldened by this article to look for better ways to improve the schools than the test-driven accountability approach we are using today.

President Johnson worked day and night to get his vision of a better world into law. In our times, we must work as hard to find the appropriate way to make a good education available to all children.

*Jack Jennings is the founder and former CEO of the Center on Education Policy. He served for 27 years as a subcommittee staff director and then as general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.

1 Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-10, 79 Stat. 27 (1965).
2 Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks in Johnson City, Tex., Upon Signing the Elementary and
Secondary Education Bill, THE AMER. PRESIDENCY PROJECT (April 11, 1965),
3 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Pub. L. No. 114-95, 129 Stat. 1802 (2015).
4 Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at Every Student Succeeds Act Signing
Ceremony, WHITE HOUSE PRESS OFFICE (December 10, 2015),

Education Law & Policy Review
Volume 3 2016

A Publication of the Education Law
Consortium in Cooperation with the
Education Law Association