The Lost Purpose of School Reform

By Diane Ravitch, reblogged from The New York Review of Books

Fifty years ago, Congress passed a federal education law to help poor children get a good public education: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. Revised many times, it is still the basis for federal education policy today. When it was last reauthorized in 2001, it was named “No Child Left Behind,” which was President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative. Both the House and the Senate are now debating a reauthorization of the law, which has been pending since 2007. Since the law gives Congress the power to determine how federal dollars will be spent, it is crucial to understand its origins and how it has evolved over time. Much is at stake.

ESEA was originally conceived as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” It had one overriding purpose: to send federal funding to schools that enrolled large numbers of children living in poverty. The schools that stood to benefit most were mainly in the South and in big cities.

Advocates of federal aid to public schools had been trying without success to persuade Congress to approve it since the 1870s. Their efforts consistently failed because neither party trusted the other to control the nation’s schools. Over the years, there were other complicating issues: Southern members of Congress (all of whom were white) feared that federal aid might be used to interfere with racially segregated schools; urban members of Congress opposed federal aid unless it also served children in Catholic schools; and in the mid-twentieth century, far-right conservatives suspected that the federal bureaucracy might push Communist ideas into school curriculums.

President Johnson was a master persuader, and he assuaged everyone’s concerns. The purpose of the law, he insisted, was to help poor children get a better education, and everyone could agree on that. Read more>>