On ESEA’s 50th Anniversary, Jack Jennings’ New Book Traces History of Federal Education Aid

Tomorrow, April 11, 2015, is the 50th birthday of the federal role in education. On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  I decided to honor this important anniversary by spending yesterday and last evening reading Jack Jennings’ new book about the federal role in public education, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform.  Jennings knows his subject.  During much of the history of ESEA, from 1967 until 1994, Jennings served as subcommittee staff director and then general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.  In 1995, he founded the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, which he led until his retirement in 2012.

In his book, Jennings suggests a new way to conceptualize the role of the federal government in a renewed ESEA.  He calls his proposal a “United for Students Act” that would be designed to address: needed preparation for schooling; improvement of teacher quality; extra resources for difficult schools; the need for more challenging content; and adequate and fair funding.  I encourage you to read Jennings’ book and consider his proposal.

In this post, however, and in honor of tomorrow’s ESEA birthday, I want to share some of the story Jennings tells about ESEA’s origin and its changes over the years.  Jennings explains: “The congressional creators of federal aid in the 1960s believed that the obstacle to better schooling was a lack of money: once sufficient funding was provided to equalize expenditures among school districts, it was assumed that educators would know what to do to improve education.  In contrast, the architects of the standards/tests/accountability reforms of the 1990s and 2000s believed that student academic achievement could be improved by setting high academic standards, using tests to measure attainment of those standards and holding teachers and schools accountable for poor results.  Providing more money to assist with this job was not necessary in the minds of many proponents of this second reform.  Neither of those two extremes has proved to be correct in its assumptions.  The past fifty years’ experiences have shown that education is too complex to have easy answers.” (pp. 4-5)

In every chapter, however, Jennings reminds all of us who have spent the past fifteen years trying to swim in a  sea of rhetoric about  accountability that ESEA’s original goal was very different from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB’s) goal: expanding educational opportunity for poor children through federal investment in their schools which were also underfunded.  The realities of funding inequity continue today: “First, per-pupil expenditures in the United States are not equal for all students; instead, the pattern is the opposite of what it should be.  Students from families of higher socioeconomic status often have more resources spent on their education than do children in low-income families… Second, most of the increased spending over the last several decades has gone toward the extra costs of services for children with disabilities and to school lunch programs and other indirect expenses.  Only a fraction of the increases has gone toward improving regular instruction for the majority of children.” (pp. 179-180)  A primary flaw in Title I, according to Jennings, was not its strategy of focusing on funding so much as the meager level at which Title I was funded: “Providing a little extra help for disadvantaged students, while laudable, is not nearly enough in a school system that permits spending far more money on advantaged students than it does on those who are disadvantaged… The current (Title I) policy of inserting a little extra help for students into an inequitable system of schooling has not brought about the quality of education we need.  The other current federal strategy—demanding extensive testing of students—has not resulted in a broad increase in student achievement.” (pp. 7-10)

Quoting from David Cohen and Susan Moffitt’s history of Title I, Jennings acknowledges the contributions of Title I despite its limitations: “If we consider where America was in 1965 with respect to the education of disadvantaged children, Title I had made significant progress by the end of the 1970s.  It delivered funds that were reasonably well targeted to schools with disadvantaged students.  It helped to make better education for disadvantaged students a new educational priority.  It moved local use of federal funds from diverse and non-instructional services to instruction…. Despite its modest size and grave weaknesses, it also stopped the relative slide in achievement for many of its students and enabled them to make small relative gains in the early grades.” (Jennings, pp. 44-45) (Cohen and Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality, pp 97-98)  In the early 1980s, before President Ronald Reagan’s administration reduced education revenue from federal sources by roughly 30 percent, the Title I program served more than 4.75 million children, provided 3.5 million children with supplementary reading instruction and 2.2 million with supplementary math instruction, and paid for 160,600 full-time equivalent staff. (pp. 45-47)

The recent NCLB version of ESEA, in contrast, has made enormous demands on already underfunded schools without providing commensurate federal funding, despite a small bump in federal funding in NCLB’s very early years:  “The New America Foundation, which monitors federal appropriations, concluded that since NCLB was enacted in 2002, ‘federal appropriations for Title I have remained fairly flat.’  They suggest that the (funding) increases immediately after the passage of NCLB did not amount to much.  Therefore, states and school districts were left to foot the bill.” (p. 149)

Jennings goes beyond presenting ideas for his United for Students bill.  He adds up the costs he believes it would be necessary for the federal government to cover—$35 billion. “The federal contribution to public elementary and secondary education would thus be doubled, from $35 billion to $70 billion…. The federal government now provides about 10 percent of the country’s total costs of elementary and secondary education.  This proposal would increase that amount to 20 percent.  The federal government has the fiscal capacity to make this increased contribution because it has broad taxing powers and a national taxing base.” (pp. 199-201)

While Jennings willingly describes the shortcomings of Title I as a relatively small, unregulated funding stream, he tracks the urgent need for greater federal financial investment in educational equity through every single chapter of this book.  We must ask more from Congress—as it considers the reauthorization of ESEA—than merely cutting back on test-and-punish. Even as Jennings sets some new goals for the federal role in education, he insists that the federal government must do more to help pay for a system that prioritizes expanding opportunity for America’s poorest children.