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How Far Has the Debate Over Federal Role in K-12 Evolved? Maybe Not That Far.

Thumbnail image for Lyndon-Johnson-ESEA-signing-1965-twitter.jpg

Republican lawmakers—and some Democrats—voiced major concerns during congressional debate about a big, sweeping education bill that's designed to pour far more federal money into K-12. They're worried that it will, instead, impede on local control of schools.

"I know that [the administration] and the National Education Association are eager to promote what they call the excellence of educational opportunity and they can do so only by imposing their views about curricula, teaching methods, and textbooks on local school districts," said one worried Republican. "Federal aid is the medium through which they can force local schools to accept this kind of dictation. ... This bill is the foot-in-the-door for federal control of education; make no mistake about it."

So who was that? Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas? Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.?

Nope. It was, in fact, Rep. Frank T. Bow, R-Ohio, speaking on the floor of the House just over fifty years ago about a bill that was a huge priority for then-President Lyndon Johnson: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Despite the objections of Bow (and plenty of others) the legislation rocketed through Congress in less than 100 days.

These days ESEA is better known by the catchy name of its current iteration, the No Child Left Behind Act, which lawmakers have been trying to update for eight years and counting. 

Anyone who has ever read the floor debate on the original, old school ESEA knows that opposition to the federal role in education didn't suddenly spring up when the Obama administration hugged the Common Core State standards a little too tightly. It's been around for decades, even pre-dating ESEA itself.

Want more? There's tons of info about the history of ESEA in this recent story, which also takes a look at the current debate around the federal role.

Other vintage Edweek pieces worth a read:

  • This 40th anniversary of ESEA story from 2005 by my former colleague Erik Robelen, which was written just a couple years after the passage of NCLB. Folks quoted in the story are a lot more optimistic about the increased federal role in that law, which has been on the books without a comprehensive update longer than any other version of ESEA.  
  • In fact, check out this story, also by Robelen, which was written the week NCLB was signed into law. Almost everyone in the story is pretty excited by the new law. Really.
  • And, for a real throwback, check out this 20th anniversary of ESEA story by another former colleague, Lynn Olson. At that point, NCLB was barely a gleam in Congress's eye. But many folks were already worried that the feds weren't getting enough bang for their buck from the main program in ESEA, Titel I for disadvantaged kids.
  • Want even more? Here's a timeline, citing noteable twists and turns in ESEA's five decades.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson jokes with his first grade school teacher Mrs. Chester Loney, after signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law at the side of his old school near Stonewall, Texas, on April 11, 1965. Seated at right are, first lady Ladybird Johnson and daughter Lynda Bird.


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