Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Elementary and Secondary School Act, the 'War on Poverty' and Title 1

The Elementary and Secondary School Act, designed by Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel, was passed on April 9, 1965, 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 funding (Title I), it allocated large resources to meet the needs of educationally deprived children, especially through compensatory programs for the poor.

"In recognition of the special educational needs of low-income families and the impact that concentrations of low-income families have on the ability of local educational agencies to support adequate educational programs, the Congress hereby declares it to be the policy of the United States to provide financial assistance... to local educational agencies serving areas with concentrations of children from low-income families to expand and improve their educational programs by various means (including preschool programs) which contribute to meeting the special educational needs of educationally deprived children" (Section 201, Elementary and Secondary School Act, 1965).

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was developed under the principle of redress, which established that children from low-income homes required more educational services than children from affluent homes. As part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I Funding allocated 1 billion dollars a year to schools with a high concentration of low-income children. This was the beginning of Head Start (a preschool program for disadvantaged children aiming at equalizing equality of opportunity based on 'readiness' for the first grade), Follow-Through (to complement the gains made by children who participated in the Head Start Program), Bilingual Education (targeting mainly Spanish-speaking children), and a variety of guidance and counselling programs. Head Start was originally started by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer program, and quickly expanded to a full-year program.

Following the enactment of the bill, President Johnson stated that Congress, which had been trying to pass a school bill for all America's children since 1870, had finally taken the most significant step of this century to provide help to all schoolchildren. He argued that the school bill was wide-reaching, because "it will offer new hope to tens of thousands of youngsters who need attention before they ever enrol in the first grade," and will help "five million children of poor families overcome their greatest barrier to progress: poverty." He also contended that there was no other single piece of legislation that could help so many for so little cost: "for every one of the billion dollars that we spend on this program, will come back tenfold as schools dropouts change to school graduates."

The assumption behind the bill and Johnson's speech (that more and better educational services for the poor would move them out of poverty) would be soon challenged by the Coleman Report (1966), which argued that school improvements (higher quality of teachers and curricula, facilities, or even compensatory education) had only a modest impact on students' achievement.

In any case, the Elementary and Secondary School Act is an example of political strategy. After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson decided to respond to civil rights pressures and religious conflicts over education by linking educational legislation to his 'War on Poverty'. In a 1964 memo, Keppel outlined three options. The first was to provide general aid to public schools, but he argued that this could generate a negative reaction from Catholic schools. The second was to provide general aid to both public and private schools, but this, besides the constitutional obstacles, would create a negative reaction from the National Education Association (NEA) and large sectors of the Democratic Party who objected to federal aid to religious schools. The third option, the one that eventually was followed, was to withdraw the idea of general aid and emphasize the educational aid to poor children, because this could endorse the support of most groups.

According to Joel Spring, the Elementary and Secondary School Act had at least three major consequences for future legislative action. First, it signalled the switch from general federal aid to education towards categorical aid, and the tying of federal aid to national policy concerns such as poverty, defense or economic growth. Second, it addressed the religious conflict by linking federal aid to educational programs directly benefiting poor children in parochial schools, and not the institutions in which they enrolled. Third, the reliance on state departments of education to administer federal funds (promoted to avoid criticisms of federal control) resulted in an expansion of state bureaucracies and larger involvement of state governments in educational decision-making.

The Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965 was amended in 1968 with Title VII, resulting in the Bilingual Education Act, which offered federal aid to local schools districts to assist them to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking ability.


The Elementary and Secondary School Act. Public Law 89-10 (April 11, 1965).

Johnson, Lyndon B. (1966). Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1965 (Book 1). Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, pp. 407-408.

Lazerson, Marvin (ed.) (1987). American education in the twentieth century: A documentary history. New York: Teachers College Press.

Spring, Joel (1993). Conflicts of Interests: The Politics of American Education. New York: Longman.

Graham, Hugh (1984). The Uncertain Triumph: Federal Education Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Years. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


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