By the end of the 1999-2000 legislative session, our national leaders must reaffirm our country's commitment to raising the educational achievement of disadvantaged children, Mr. Jennings maintains. Any other result would not be true to the facts or to American history - nor would it be in the best economic, social, and moral interests of the country.
IN THE United States, although state governments have primary responsibility for elementary and secondary education, the federal government provides significant but limited support in a few key areas. A special concern of the federal government for more than three decades has been the education of children who come to school with disadvantages - be they educational, economic, physical, or mental.
Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 is the principal embodiment of the national commitment to help educate economically and educationally disadvantaged children. This legislation has been regularly authorized for periods of five years and expires in the 1999-2000 congressional sessions. Thus the President and the Congress will have to decide whether and how to continue providing financial support to states and local school districts through Title I. In other words, they must ask themselves, Is the education of disadvantaged children still a matter of national concern?
Federal Aid Before Title I
Although federal support for education is secondary to state support, it nevertheless has been important from the very beginnings of the nation. In the late 18th century, Congress encouraged the establishment of schools by setting aside land for their support - in fact, a vast amount of land, 77 million acres. After the Civil War, Congress demanded that all new states admitted to the union provide free, nonsectarian public schools.1 During the 20th century, the federal government encouraged general support of schools and colleges by allowing federal income tax deductions, by promoting vocational education to train workers, by enacting the GI Bill of Rights, and by passing the National Defense Education Act to support science and mathematics instruction.
Over the course of two centuries, the federal government took action, although limited, in the area of education when vital national interests were involved - supporting democracy by educating ordinary citizens in common schools and colleges; furthering economic prosperity by training workers; and providing for the defense of the nation by ensuring the health of children, their preparation in crucial areas of learning, and their training for jobs. These same objectives were behind the enactment of Title I of the ESEA and other legislation of the 1960s designed to improve the education of disadvantaged children. But two additional imperatives for national action were also present: civil rights and social welfare.
The Birth of Title I
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that segregation of children by race in the public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment. That ruling gave rise to a national debate about the quality of education being provided to African American children and eventually led to a broader discussion of the needs of children of all races who came from poor families or who had other disadvantages. When President John Kennedy assumed office in 1961, he proposed large-scale federal aid to improve education, including the education of black children and of other poor and disadvantaged youths. At the time, black children constituted approximately 13% of the enrollment in elementary and secondary schools. As a group, they were overwhelmingly poor - 65% of black children were living in poverty, compared with 20% of white children.2 In other words, the issues of race and poverty became linked because the facts of race and poverty in America were intertwined. Most of President Kennedy's legislative proposals for education were not enacted because of three major obstacles. First, Southerners feared that, if schools received new federal aid to education, it would lead to forced integration of white and black students. Second, conservatives said that new federal aid would lead to federal control of elementary and secondary education. Third, proponents of Catholic schools and other private schools blocked any new legislation that did not involve some aid to their schools. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, who had assumed office after the assassination of President Kennedy, signed the Civil Rights Act, which sought to remove legal barriers to the full participation of blacks in American society. That law addressed one obstacle to federal school aid by signaling to the Southerners in Congress that the issue of integration had far broader implications than just education and would have to be dealt with one way or another.
In November 1964, Johnson was elected President by an overwhelming margin, and the electorate gave him a large Democratic majority in Congress. With this cushion of votes, Johnson was able to forge solutions to the remaining two major obstacles to new federal school aid. Earlier that year, Johnson had appointed a commission on education, chaired by John Gardner, president of the Carnegie Corporation, which recommended that federal aid not be general in nature but rather be targeted to particular categories of need. The commission suggested tying education aid to the new War on Poverty, which had been launched in the previous year. Johnson adopted this approach, and the ESEA proposed Title I as a program of aid to disadvantaged children, along with other "categorical" programs for the purchase of library books, the creation of supplemental education centers, and the development of state departments of education.
The vast bulk of the new funding was earmarked for Title I. Johnson's proposal built on the recommendation of Gardner's commission to tie aid to poverty by creating a "child benefit theory" of assistance. That is, federal money would "follow the disadvantaged child" to whatever school he or she attended - public or private. But a "public trustee" would have to administer the funds for all such children, and that trustee would almost always be the local public school district. This compromise - …