• Deb Mayer

ESEA, yesterday and today

Congress has recently taken on the task of what is known as the "reauthorization of ESEA" or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that was signed into law by then President Lyndon Baines Johnson. That claim is deceiving. What Congress is really doing is reauthorizing the failed policies of NCLB or the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a disastrous bill signed into law by George W. Bush. Then, instead of abolishing the harmful policies of NCLB as many of his supporters expected, President Barack Obama expanded upon the competitive aspects of the law and encouraged school districts to vie for funding in yet another toxic program, Race to the Top, in 2009.

While politicians again try to paint a pretty picture of their newest attempt to fix our ailing education system with the Every Child Achieves Act, it may be astute for us to return to the orginal ESEA to compare its intent to this newest reauthorization.


The original piece of legislation constituted the most important educational component of the “War on Poverty” launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Through a special source of funding (Title I), the law allocated large resources to meet the needs of educationally deprived children, especially through compensatory programs for the poor. In the original text of ESEA, the word "test" was used exactly one time, and it did not refer to the testing of students. Of those 17,094 words the word "test" appeared exactly once. Even then it referred to the testing of the programs ESEA themselves to ascertain whether or not they were working.

In the original text of ESEA, the word "test" was used exactly one time, and it did not refer to the testing of students.

LBJ speaks about ESEA as an integral part of his "War on Poverty."

"Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty . . .

We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate all the poverty in America in a few months or a few years. Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many. But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens."

No, these aren't words ripped from today's headlines. Wishful thinking. President Lyndon said those words in 1964.

Lyndon Johnson's first job right out of college was that of a teacher. He taught poor Mexican-American children who could barely speak English. He always wanted to do more for his students, saying:

"Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

Poverty is the root cause of our nation's education woes, but poverty is also pervasive throughout our democracy. Poverty is the enemy. Before his presidency was overshadowed by the war in Viet Nam, Lyndon Baines Johnson had started another war: the war on poverty. If Viet Nam hadn't sucked the funding out of that war, this country might have eliminated poverty once and for all. It's time to give it another shot. These are some of LBJ's accomplishment during his short term as President as he encouraged Americans to create a Great Society. From the U.S. History website:

  • A Job Corps was established to provide valuable vocational training.

  • Head Start, a preschool program designed to help disadvantaged students arrive at kindergarten ready to learn was put into place.

  • The VOLUNTEERS IN SERVICE TO AMERICA (VISTA) was set up as a domestic Peace Corps.

  • The Wilderness Protection Act saved 9.1 million acres of forestland from industrial development.

  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided major funding for American public schools.

  • The Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and other discriminatory methods of denying suffrage to African Americans.

  • Medicare was created to offset the costs of health care for the nation's elderly.

  • The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities used public money to fund artists and galleries.

  • The Immigration Act ended discriminatory quotas based on ethnic origin.

  • An Omnibus Housing Act provided funds to construct low-income housing.

  • Congress tightened pollution controls with stronger Air and Water Quality Acts.

  • Standards were raised for safety in consumer products."

From his 1965 State of the Union speech to the United States Congress:

"Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 states, are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can guess from our own lives how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness. How many problems each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their futures, but I think they also look to each of us."

Watch here as President Johnson speaks at the signing ceremony.


Any reauthorization of ESEA should consider that nearly a quarter of our nation' children live in poverty. According to statistics produced by Frontline, only three industrialized countries -- Mexico, Chile, and Turkey -- have a higher child poverty rate than the United States. In 1964 Americans were smart enough to know that comprehensive education reform demanded a global approach beginning with the eradication of poverty.

Instead of addressing poverty problem of our ailing nation, Congress is arguing over where to put the band-aids on ESEA which today bears little resemblance to the original version. Instead the debate hinges, not on adequate funding for the education of all children, but on how much to test chlldren.

Poverty among children younger than 18 began dropping even before the War on Poverty. From 27.3% in 1959, childhood poverty fell to 23% in 1964 and to 14% by 1969. Since then the childhood poverty rate has risen, fallen and, since the 2007-08 financial crisis, risen again to over 20%. Poverty rates among Afican American and Latino children is even higher. Yet pleas to our government to address poverty instead of insisting on an agenda of high stakes testing falls on deaf ears. We already know that income levels predict student test scores. The problem is we no longer seem to care.

The Every Child Achieves Act 2015 doubles down on the failed policies of NCLB with both houses of Congress asking for annual testing of all students. Now is the time to contact Congress. Tell your Senate and House representatives we want a bill that:

  • reduces high-stakes testing.

  • protects student data privacy

  • includes adequate funding for services essential for student learning

  • provides for parental rights to opt their children out of any standardized test

and does NOT:

  • impose inappropriate academic requirements on our youngest learners, or

  • continue to pour money into privatizing education, including charter and online learning programs, with little accountability or improved academic outcomes.

The text of the bill will not be made public until Nov 30th. Congress may likely vote on the Every Child Achieves Act as early as December 2, 2015. We suggest our representatives take a breath and actually read and discuss the provisions of the bill before voting.

Contact Congress. Tell them to wait until we have some time to know what the bill says before it becomes law.

#ESEA #LyndonBainesJohnson #EveryChildAchieveAct #WaronPoverty #BarakObama

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