Was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 a Civil Rights Law?
Newly arrived Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., is in hot water with Congress, state governors and various school reformers. The Department of Education is moving forward with rules that would turn the Every Student Succeeds Act’s “supplement not supplant” provision into a cudgel to force states to equalize school spending.
It’s easy to see why folks are ticked. Not least, there is the fact that the ESSA took years to negotiate and a ton of time was spent building a bipartisan coalition to support the legislation. President Barack Obama signed it in December, and a mere three months later, the department jammed a finger in Congress’ eye with its rulemaking, which splits supporters of the ESSA.
There also is the small matter of the law: the department’s proposed new take on “supplement not supplant” goes way beyond the plain language of the law and is contrary to its legislative history and spirit:
“A State educational agency or local educational agency shall use Federal funds received under this part only to supplement the funds that would, in the absence of such Federal funds, be made available from State and local sources for the education of students participating in programs assisted under this part, and not to supplant such funds.”
Plainly, the provision aims to ensure that states do not treat incoming federal dollars as an excuse to reduce their own spending on schools. This sort of requirement is common to federal grant programs. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who knows the ESSA better than anyone, called King out. “I will use every power of Congress to see that this law is implemented the way Congress wrote it.” (Alexander, it is worth recalling, has been working on education reform since the 1980s, when King was a kid, and Alexander himself has served as secretary of the Department of Education.)
King has made matters worse by trying to justify the department’s overreach as keeping with the legislation’s history – going back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – as a civil-rights measure.
“Six decades after Brown v. Board, we have failed to close opportunity and achievement gaps for our African-American and Latino students at every level of education. And in far too many schools, we continue to offer them less—less access to the best teachers and the most challenging courses; less access to the services and supports that affluent students often take for granted, and less access to what it takes to succeed academically.“So we have urgent work to do as a country to truly provide equitable educational opportunities for all students. But we believe we stand better positioned to move forward, because of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As you know, ESSA reauthorized the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) signed by President Johnson in 1965. It was a civil rights law then, as it is now.”
Perhaps King was echoing President Obama, who also has contended the original ESEA was a civil-rights law. Regardless, this rhetoric is inherently nasty—if you disagree with the new regulations, the logic goes, then you’re against civil rights. Additionally, it’s a mischaracterization. The ESEA was an anti-poverty policy, a key part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, comprising Was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 a Civil Rights Law? – Federal Education Policy History: