On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLBA). This legislation reauthorized, and provided major reform, to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).
The Cold War and the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik spacecraft in October 1957 brought calls for improvements to the nation’s educational system. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy developed proposals to ensure that American students were competitive with students around the world. His proposals were intended to guarantee that students of every race, religion, and social standing would receive a good education. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson revised Kennedy’s proposals, and oversaw their introduction in Congress. Part of Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” ESEA was the most expansive federal education legislation ever passed. The bill passed with little debate and in only three months’ time.
ESEA provided federal funding for 90 percent of the nation’s public and parochial schools. Title 1, the law’s most important provision, provides guidelines for the education of “educationally disadvantaged” students. It also provides funds: more than 80 percent of the original appropriation under ESEA went to ESEA. In 2005, President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 asked for an appropriation of $13.3 billion for Title 1, a $4.6 billion, or 52 percent, increase for Title I since enactment of NCLBA. According to the Department of Education, 12.5 million students in public and private schools are served through Title I.
Part of ESEA’s legacy has been controversy. Prior to ESEA, educational policy decisions had been almost exclusively in the hands of state and local governments. Critics have charged that the federal government has become too involved in regulating educational matters better left to local school districts. The federal government now provides approximately seven percent of the total funding for elementary and secondary schools.
Critics of ESEA have also charged that Title 1 has done little to raise student performance, because it did not mandate accountability for academic results. No Child Left Behind was crafted to address that issue. According to Congress, the two goals of NCLBA are accountability for schools and teachers, and closing the achievement gap for students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, “so that no child is left behind.” No Child Left Behind’s lofty and worthy goals brought it broad bipartisan support in Congress, but its implementation has engendered considerable controversy.