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ESEA’s 50-Year Legacy a Blend of Idealism, Policy Tensions

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act outside the former one-room schoolhouse in rural Texas he’d once attended. The new law dramatically ramped up Washington’s investment in K-12 education, carving out a role for the federal government in educating the nation’s poorest children.

But shortly after that cinematic ceremony, administrators in the U.S. Office of Education—the predecessor of today’s separate, Cabinet-level department—found themselves with a difficult task.

They needed to write—and enforce—regulations that would ensure states and districts sent the federal dollars to communities with the highest concentrations of poverty and used the money appropriately. And while state and local governments were happy to cash the federal checks, many weren’t nearly as receptive to federal direction.

Five decades and more than half a dozen revisions of the ESEA later, calibrating the proper federal K-12 role remains an elusive goal.