President Lyndon Baines Johnson implemented the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was the first significant federal aid program for education. This marked a new era in education as the federal government entered a field that was previously dominated by states and local authorities. The act included the Title I program, which allocated $1 billion towards compensatory education, emphasizing the belief that education was the key to overcoming poverty. The bill quickly passed through Congress in just three months, leading some Republican Congressmen to refer to it as the "railroad bill of 1965."

In an unprecedented move, the Senate approved the measure without any amendments. By the middle of the 1965-66 school year, funds were already being distributed to local school districts across the country. Last week, key figures involved in shaping and passing the bill, along with those who have developed its programs, gathered at the Capitol to reflect on the past two decades and discuss the future of this major federal spending program in precollegiate education. During a banquet and subsequent seminar, two themes emerged: the landmark bill, with its emphasis on federal involvement and addressing the needs of disadvantaged students, revolutionized American education. However, the original funding and scope envisioned for the program were never fully realized, resulting in a more focused program that has still achieved measurable success.

At the time of its passing, many Congress members saw the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as the first step towards making the federal government an equal partner in the education of the nation’s children. They hoped that within a few years, school systems would incorporate remedial or compensatory education into their regular curriculum, and increasing federal funds would be used to provide financial aid to all students. Twenty years later, the compensatory education program, known as Title I, serves approximately 4.7 million children under the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981. It has withstood criticism and amendments, surviving near dissolution during the Reagan Administration. However, despite the program’s $3.7 billion funding, which is equivalent to the $1 billion spent in 1966, approximately 45% of the 11 million eligible children still do not receive Title I services.

According to Samuel Halperin, a senior fellow with the Institute for Educational Leadership, the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was primarily a political event. Over the 20 years preceding the act, Congress had repeatedly tried to establish a federal role in education, but issues of race, religion, fear of federal control, and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives consistently hindered progress. President Lyndon B. Johnson made education a central focus of his War on Poverty, despite only sponsoring one education bill during his time in Congress.

The balance of political power shifted with the election of 69 freshman Democratic representatives in 1964, 60 of whom were elected due to President Johnson’s influence. This change in power was instrumental in making an education bill a reality. The Johnson Administration’s bill was introduced in the House on January 12 and was rushed through Congress to prevent it from falling apart due to potential delays, as explained by John F. Jennings, counsel for education for the House Education and Labor Committee. Hearings began on January 22 and the bill passed both houses of Congress by April 9. Two days later, President Johnson signed the bill in a one-room schoolhouse in his hometown in Texas, affirming education as the only true escape from poverty.

Overall, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 had a significant impact on American education, although the program did not achieve the original funding and scope that was anticipated. However, it remains the largest federal spending program in precollegiate education and has demonstrated measurable success in providing support to disadvantaged students.

‘The Widest Possible’

Mr. Halperin described Title I as the "broadest form of categorical assistance imaginable". The program was so broad that even after it was passed, some members of Congress believed they had voted for a general aid program for education. However, this broadness later led to some problems for the program. Initially, the law was only 10 pages long, but it grew to over 40 pages in subsequent years. President Johnson compared the act to a Model T Ford that was destined for change. At that time, there were very few models of compensatory education, so states were unsure how to utilize the funds. Representative William F. Goodling stated that states and local districts were given broad authority to experiment in the hopes that the best approaches would emerge over time. Initially, there was no requirement for a state plan to administer the funds, and schools received the money late in the school year with little time for planning. Even before federal regulations were released, suppliers had already sold instructional approaches and materials to local school systems.

Early Misuse

Title I funds were intended to support schools in the poorest areas of each district and focus on academically needy children. However, early studies found that the funds were being used to replace state and local expenditures, finance systemwide programs and general school needs, purchase books and supplies for all schoolchildren, cover overhead expenses, increase teacher salaries, build swimming pools, and renovate superintendents’ offices. Federal audits confirmed the extensive use of funds for purchases rather than services. According to John F. Hughes, there was difficulty in getting officials to use the funds for specialized programs instead of intensifying regular services. These early shortcomings were later addressed through amendments to the program, but they left a stain on Title I that was hard to erase.

War and Transformation

The original expectations for funding of Title I were much higher than what was actually provided. By 1967, the financial strain caused by the Vietnam War led to a realization that funding would not substantially grow. This prompted changes to the program, turning it into a more targeted approach for compensatory aid. The Nixon Administration contended that the program had not achieved educational gains, which further accelerated the shift towards targeting specific populations.

Current Impact

According to Mr. Jennings, there is now little disagreement that better targeting of Title I has led to improved basic skills among disadvantaged students. A study conducted for the Education Department in the late 1970s and early 1980s found that Title I students showed progress in mathematics and reading over the course of a school year. The effects of Title I were also found to persist even after services had ended, continuing into the next summer and school year. Archie Lapointe, executive director of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, suggested that the improved reading scores of certain student groups could be attributed, at least in part, to Title I.

Critics’ Perspectives

The authors argue that the restrictions on the use of Title I aid have created a separate organizational structure within the school system. This includes hiring separate personnel, offering separate classes for students, and having separate administrative systems. They believe that this separation has limited the influence and effectiveness of the Title I program.

However, participants at the Title I celebration disagree with this argument. They believe that the program has had positive effects beyond improved student test scores. They argue that Title I has been successful in reallocating educational funds and redistributing resources. It has also raised awareness about the learning needs of disadvantaged children and has led to changes in state funding formulas.

The program has also been credited with addressing disparities in funding within school districts. It has allowed resources to flow to individual disadvantaged students in private and parochial schools, creating a successful public-private school partnership. Title I has also served as a model for other federal programs aimed at supporting handicapped students, migrant children, Indians, and delinquent youngsters.

Despite these positive contributions, there are concerns about the future of the program. There has been a decrease in the number of children served by Title I due to federal budget cuts, even though the need for support has not decreased. Poverty rates among young children have increased, indicating a growing need for compensatory education. Changes in the demographics of poverty and the student population also need to be addressed.

Moreover, secondary schools have specific needs that the Chapter 1 program has not adequately addressed. Big-city school systems, in particular, continue to struggle with achievement problems unique to their context. The rural areas also require increased support for Chapter 1 services.

In conclusion, while there are differing opinions about the effectiveness of Title I, it has undeniably brought attention to the needs of disadvantaged children and has sparked changes in educational funding and support. However, challenges still persist, and there is a need for continued efforts to improve the educational opportunities for those who need it the most.

The current school-reform movement is said to have a hint of cynicism, implying that we have spent too much of our resources on high-need children, according to Patrick Proctor, the coordinator of the school-development unit in the Connecticut Department of Education. However, Robert L. Woodson, the president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, argues that the resources have been spent inefficiently. He believes that the massive increase in federal funding over the past two decades has not led to a proportional improvement in the condition of the poor.

Woodson suggests that a portion of the funds allocated for Chapter 1 should be used to provide vouchers to parents, giving them the freedom to choose schools for their children. Despite the positive opinions expressed by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Vice-President George Bush, there are concerns among seminar participants that the Administration’s plan to freeze Chapter 1 funding for fiscal 1986 would exclude many more children from the program. Additionally, converting the program into a voucher system could put its long-term survival at risk.

Representative Hawkins, on the other hand, is confident that there is a significant group of supporters who firmly believe in Chapter 1. Despite acknowledging the program’s initial challenges, he emphasizes its importance and vitality throughout the years. If American students are indeed experiencing a decline in educational achievement, Hawkins argues that Chapter 1 becomes even more crucial and essential than ever before.

Later this month, Education Week will explore the 20th anniversary of Project Head Start.


  • rhysgraham

    Rhys Graham is an educational blogger and professor who writes about topics such as literacy, mathematics, and science. He has written several books, including one on the history of science. He is also the co-founder of the website Learn Out Loud, which helps educators create and share classroom activities.