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The most important education law is 50 years old, and we're still fighting about it

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

This sentence from the New York Times might seem straight out of a debate about education in Congress today: "The strings attached to the federal funds were causing many educators to question whether the schools would be run locally or from Washington."

But it's 50 years old, written in 1965, shortly after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The landmark law, which sent federal funds to schools to help educate low-income students, gave the federal government a bigger role in the school system than before. It was the first time the government had directly funded elementary and secondary students. The law is still around today, now known as No Child Left Behind.

The debates the Elementary and Secondary Education Act sparked still resonate. Education has historically been a state and local responsibility. For Republicans and conservatives who worry about big government overreach, the prospect of the schools being controlled from Washington is a viscerally resonant example. It's why shutting down the Education Department entirely remains a popular proposal in Republican primaries, and why a proposal to overhaul No Child Left Behind that preserved some federal role in education led to a conservative revolt last month.

Opponents saw the bill as a "crown of thorns" for states

When the House of Representatives debated the bill, one representative — a Democrat — "attacked the bill as too costly and as carrying a threat of federal bureaucratic control," Robert K. Walsh wrote in the Washington Star.

Washington Star ESEA
(Washington Star archives)

"'Apparently we have come to the end of the road so far as federal control of our system of education is concerned,' [Rep. Howard W. Smith, a Virginia Democrat] said. 'I think I see the handwriting on the wall. This is the day the bureaucrats in the federal Office of Education have been waiting for. But if we must have this crown of thorns placed on states and on our local people, let's at least clean it up a little."

This is still a common theme in conservative objections to federal education policy: that by handing out money, Washington takes too much control over what's historically been a state and local issue.

As Congress tries to overhaul No Child Left Behind, whether the money should come with strings attached — and how prescriptive the federal government should be — is still a central issue.

"Trust states" is a mantra for conservatives who think states should get more say in how they hold schools accountable. Civil rights groups argue that states can't be trusted to pay attention to the needs of poor and disabled children and need the threat of federal oversight.

The Education Department and Republicans had the same argument 50 years ago. As Marjorie Hunter wrote in the New York Times:

trust states ESEA
Whether the federal government should trust states is still a point of contention. (New York Times archives)

The biggest question wasn't about federal control — it was about private schools

The biggest sticking point, though, wasn't the threat of federal control. It was whether the federal government should offer aid to private, religious schools as well as public ones.

That debate derailed earlier attempts to spend federal money on education. Catholic groups opposed any bill that would only benefit public schools, but spending money on parochial schools would almost certainly violate the First Amendment. Nearly every article on the bill focuses on how it would get around that "church-state question."

church state ESEA
(New York Times archives)

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act sent money to states and districts to be used only for public schools, but with a few other programs — such as resources for library books and tutoring centers — available to private school children, as well.

This debate is still around, but in a different form. It's now about whether Title I money should go to individual students, who could use the funds to attend private school if they wanted, rather than to states and districts.

Some Republicans want students to be able to use federal and state money as vouchers to attend private or religious schools if they want. And others argue that students should be able to bring their money with them from one public school to another.

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