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Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

By Catherine A. Paul

 Lyndon B. Johnson at the ESEA signing ceremony, with his childhood schoolteacher Ms. Kate Deadrich Loney[View Image]
[View Image]
Lyndon B. Johnson at the ESEA signing ceremony, with his childhood schoolteacher Ms. Kate Deadrich Loney
Photo: Public Domain

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was a cornerstone of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” (McLaughlin, 1975). This law brought education into the forefront of the national assault on poverty and represented a landmark commitment to equal access to quality education (Jeffrey, 1978). ESEA is an extensive statute that funds primary and secondary education, emphasizing high standards and accountability. As mandated in the act, funds are authorized for professional development, instructional materials, resources to support educational programs, and the promotion of parental involvement. The act was signed into law on April 9, 1965 and its appropriations were to be carried out for five fiscal years. The government has reauthorized the act every five years since its enactment. In the course of these reauthorizations, a variety of revisions and amendments have been introduced. The various subdivisions of the ESEA are designated as titles, followed by a Roman numeral designation.

1965 – 1968

Title I, a provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is a program created by the United States Department of Education to distribute funding to schools and school districts with a high percentage of students from low-income families. Title I has received the most attention from policy and lawmakers, as it accounts for 5/6ths of the total funds authorized by the ESEA. In its original conception, Title I was designed to close the skill gap in reading, writing, and mathematics between children from low-income households who attend urban or rural school systems and children from the middle-class who attend suburban school systems (Jeffrey, 1978).

Title II supported school libraries and textbook acquisition for both private and public schools, and it funded preschool programs. Title III, cited as the Adult Education Act of 1966, stated that supplementary educational centers and services would receive funding for additional support services to bolster school attendance. In addition, Title III mandated educational programming even when school was not in session, and it provided for special education and related services in isolated or rural areas. An amendment to the act in 1968 provided the basis for The Bilingual Education Act and the Education of the Handicapped Act. Title IV allocated $100 million over a five year period to fund educational research and training, and Title V supplemented grants created under Public Law 874 to state departments. Lastly, Title VI provided definitions and limitations related to the law (Jeffrey, 1978).

The first five years of the the ESEA demonstrated some inherent issues regarding money, religion, race, and federal-state-local relations within the law, as predicted by the opponents of federal aid. The original hope was that, once schools received money, the school systems would reform and reach out to those children neglected the system for so long. Rather, national priorities shifted, pressure groups splintered, and the political climate changed. While Title I’s gains were modest, hardly living up to the rhetorical claims made during the War on Poverty, they still held value, calling to question what was the best way to get results for the nation’s poor and under-educated (Jeffrey, 1978).

1969 – 2015

A strong critic of the ESEA, President Richard Nixon signed the 1969 ESEA amendments, which included Title II funding for programs for refugee children and children residing in low–rent public housing. Title VI was dedicated to the education of individuals with disabilities, and Title VII bolstered the Vocational Education Act of 1963. Title VIII provided a definition of gifted and talented and established the Teacher Corps (Jeffrey, 1978; Zascavage, 2010).

In 1972, the Educational Amendments of 1972 (Public Law No. 92‑318, 86 Stat. 235) was enacted by Congress as an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Vocational Education Act of 1963, the General Education Provisions Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Title IX, as this act is commonly known,  is a comprehensive federal law that protects individuals from sex-based discrimination in schools or other federally funded programs.

During the Reagan Administration, Congress passed the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA) in 1981 to reduce federal regulations of Title I. This reflected the administration’s stance that money should be in the hands of states and local jurisdictions rather than at a federal level. Despite these changes outlined by the ECIA and the new designation of Title I as Chapter I, little was done to implement it and traditional Title I practices continued (Zascavage, 2010).

In addition, Reagan’s amendments emphasized bilingual education programming, which was exemplified in Title II. Title VI, The Emergency Immigrant Education Act of 1984, provided financial assistance to states to meet the needs of English language instruction and other bilingual services. Title IV incorporated the Woman’s Educational Equity Amendments of 1984. Title V included the Indian Education Amendments of 1984 (Zascavage, 2010).

Soon, the conversation around Title I shifted from financial regulations to student achievement. In 1988, the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Act refocused Title I on cultivating school improvement and excellence programs. The additions called for synchrony between Chapter I and classroom instruction, a raise in the achievement standard for low-income students by emphasizing advanced skills rather than basic ones, and increased parental involvement. It also had two new provisions: program improvement and schoolwide projects. Program improvements were modifications that would occur when students who received funding were not improving. The school wide projects altered the requirement that local funds had to match school wide program funding by Title I, allowing a larger number of high-need schools to implement school wide programming.

The 1993 National Assessment of Title I noted shortcomings in the Title’s 1980s alterations. These catalyzed the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA), which significantly revised the original ESEA. The IASA attempted to coordinate federal resources and policies with the preexisting efforts at the state and local levels to improve instruction for all students. This reform made three major changes to Title I. It added math and reading/language arts standards to be used to assess student progress and provide accountability. It reduced the threshold for schools to implement schoolwide programs from 75 percent poverty to 50 percent and gave schools a longer reign to use federal funding from multiple programs to dispense funds at a school wide level. Lastly, the IASA gave more local control overall so that federal officials and states could waive federal requirements that interfered with school improvements.No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School Logo[View Image]
[View Image]
No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School Logo
Photo: Public Domain

The 2001 reauthorization of ESEA under President George W. Bush was known as the No Child Left Behind Act. This reauthorization required increased accountability from schools both from the teachers and from the students. Yearly standardized tests measured how schools were performing against the achievement bars set by Title I. Schools were also responsible for publishing annual report cards that detailed their student achievement data and demographics. Schools were now held accountable not only by punitive measures that would be taken if schools fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), but also corrective actions were taken if states did not have an assessment system approved by Title I. Under NCLB, schools were also required to plan for restructuring if they failed to make AYP for three years after being identified for improvement. More schools took corrective action under NCLB than under IASA. NCLB also required teachers to be highly qualified if hired using Title I funding. By promoting accountability for the achievement of all students, NCLB played an important role in protecting the civil rights of the country’s at-risk students (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Additionally, the 2001 version of NCLB allowed military recruiters access to 11th and 12th grade students’ names, addresses, and telephone listings when requested (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).

While NCLB helped in closing achievement gaps and mandating transparency, it also had several problematic results. The law created incentives for states to lower their standards, emphasized punishing failure over rewarding success, focused on scores instead of growth and progress, and prescribed a pass-fail, one-size-fits-all series of interventions for schools that miss their state-established goals (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.).

ESEA was reauthorized on December 10, 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) under President Barack Obama. Under Obama, the law offered flexibility to states from from some of the law’s most cumbersome provisions. In order to qualify for this flexibility, states had to demonstrate that they adopted college and career-ready standards and assessments, implemented school accountability systems that focused on the lowest-performing schools and those with the largest achievement gaps, and ensured that districts were implementing teacher and principal evaluation and support systems (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.).

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

For further reading:

For the most recent elementary and secondary education legislation: The U.S. Department of Education, Laws & Guidance, Elementary & Secondary Education

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act: 40 Years Later, courtesy of the Harvard Graduate School of Education 


Jeffrey, J. (1978). Education for children of the poor: A study of the origins and implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

McLaughlin, M. (1975). Evaluation and reform: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Title I. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger Publishing Company

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). What is ESEA? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2004). Policy guidance – Access to high school students and information on students by military recruiters. Retrieved from

Zascavage, V. (2010). Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In Encyclopedia of Educational Reform and Dissent.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2016). Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

12 Replies to “Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965”

  1. […] H.R. 610 would repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), which was passed as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on […]

  2. The truth about Title I funds and annual testing | Chicago Activism says:

    […] Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was originally passed in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty with the intention of providing the schools with large numbers of the neediest students with […]

  3. […] legislation 1. Social Security 2. The Food Stamp Act 3. The Economic Opportunity Act and 4. ESEA.  ESEA of 1965 was intended to address the high poverty of the poor in America through Title I funding in schools. […]

  4. […] Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. (n.d.). Retrieved from The Social Welfare History Project:… […]

  5. […] the legacy of ESEA as a civil rights law, this new reauthorization focuses on protecting and serving all students, particularly those from […]

  6. […] rewrite stays in the war on poverty by demanding that states intervene on the bottom 5 percent of schools based on a preponderance – […]

  7. jhansan says:

    Yes, as it is noted. Jack Hansan

  8. […] About ESEA: Roughly 10% of the funding spent on K-12 education by the U.S. Department of Education — largely funneled through ESEA — goes to determine policies that impact everything from teacher certification, school assessment schedules, the types of program funding is spent on, and how much schools must spend in order to access federal funds. […]

  9. […] Behind” under Bush, then go back to The Department of Education under Carter, then back to the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” under LBJ., the New Deal under FDR, and the initiation of Progressivism in this country […]

  10. […] The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 “On April 9, 1965 Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) (P.L. 89-10), the most expansive federal education bill ever passed.  It is significant to note the bill was enacted less than three months after it was introduced. . . This 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.” The Social Welfare History Project […]

  11. […] the Title I program subsidizing school districts with a large share of impoverished students, among other provisions. ESEA has since been reauthorized, most recently in the No Child Left Behind […]

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