A political case history: Passage of the ESEA

In this classic Kappan article, James Guthrie considers the many issues that surrounded the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Neither by the intentions of its framers nor by analysis of its content can the ESEA be said to fit the more usual definitions of “general aid.” Nevertheless, it was regarded by many as a major breakthrough on the road to general aid because it was enacted despite its potential to trigger all the previous political roadblocks. For example, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited the flow of ESEA funds to de jure segregated schools. Nonpublic school students stood to draw substantial benefits from ESEA Titles I, II, and III. And, particularly with the Office of Education-administered Title III, the ESEA possessed sizeable authority for federal decision making. However, even with these volatile provisions, political repercussions were insufficient to prevent the bill’s passage.

That the ESEA did pass calls for a reassessment of Congress and Bailey’s 3 R’s.1 Has the ESEA made a difference in the politics of federal aid to education? Are the traditional controversies resolved, or at least less intense? What action is Congress likely to take on school aid bills in the future? As with most questions about politics, answers to the above queries do not come in neat packages. The probability is great that passage of the ESEA resolved several issues, avoided some, and simply overrode others. Disregarding a few of the complexities, the present situation appears something like the following:


Historically, a bloc of congressmen (predominantly from Southern states) has voted against federal aid proposals which denied funds for racially segregated schools. Another bloc (predominantly from Northern areas with large Negro populations) has been able to prevent the passage of proposed legislation which would allow racially segregrated schools to participate. This controversy has consistently provoked some of the most violent debates in the history of Congress; on more than one occasion tempers have flared and namecalling has occurred.

The typical pattern for this controversy has been for a general aid bill to be submitted which would not specifically exclude federal funds from racially segregated school districts. A “civil rights” advocate, either in committee or on the floor, would then offer an amendment to prohibit federal funds to such school districts.  During the 1950’s, the amendment to prohibit became known as the “Powell Amendment” because of the frequency with which it was offered by the Democratic Representative from New York City’s Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell.

Once offered, the Powell Amendment typically drew support from two blocs: 1) congressmen who for a variety of motives strongly supported civil rights measures, and 2) those who may or may not have felt strongly about civil rights, but who disagreed with general aid and knew that a civil rights amendment was a sure method for sealing such a bill’s legislative doom. By voting in favor of the Powell Amendment this latter group (typically composed of fiscally conservative Northern Republicans) reaped the best of two political worlds; they appeared as favoring civil rights but ever-mindful of the dangers of “creeping socialism” and “big” government.

From the moment the Powell Amendment was adopted, a school aid bill’s eventual failure was assured. The prohibition of federal funds to segregated school systems motivated Southern congressmen, who favored otherwise unfettered federal funds, to vote negatively; combined with the anti-federal aid bloc, their votes formed an unfavorable majority which prior to 1965 proved to be an impossible barrier for broad-scale school aid legislation to penetrate.

The ESEA was able to surmount the race barrier for several reasons. First, its passage was undoubtedly given an overall boost by the growing momentum of the civil rights movement. Large numbers of congressmen and their constituents were coming to agree with the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that de jure racially segregated schools were unjust and thus should not receive federal financial encouragement. A more specific assist was given the ESEA by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In the minds of some anti-desegregation congressmen, the federal government, by requiring racial desegregation, has usurped local and state decision-making prerogatives.

This legislation provided that no person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participating in, and be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any programs or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Such language made it clear that de jure segregated schools were not to receive federal aid.

The Civil Rights Act certainly did not eliminate hostile feelings about racial desegregation or make ESEA more attractive to Southerners. However, it tended to remove debates over racial desegregation from congressional education committees and place them on the backs of judiciary and other committees. Moreover, the Civil Rights Act reduced the probability of a potentially divisive Powell Amendment being offered on the floor. In these ways, passage of the ESEA was greatly facilitated.

In the final analysis, however, the ESEA tended more to “muscle over” rather than resolve the racial issue. An examination of the roll call votes on final passage of the 1965 bill provides added evidence for this contention. Democrats voted for final passage 228 to 57; this is 10 more votes from Democrats alone than the 218 necessary for a simple majority. However, of the 57 opposing Democratic votes, 54 were cast by Southerners. Southern Republican votes were even more emphatically negative, 15 to 2 against passage of the ESEA. Moreover, of the 43 affirmative Southern votes, almost all were from border states where desegregation has made the most progress. Almost all negative Democratic votes were from congressmen from the Deep South where desegregation has met with the greatest opposition. In contrast to Southern opposition, Northern Democrats exhibited an awesome display of unity in voting 187 to 3 in favor of the bill. From these figures, it is difficult to arrive at any conclusion other than that the ESEA capitalized upon a favorably disposed non-Southern bloc vote to bulldoze over anti-desegregation opposition. The race issue was not solved, it was overridden.

Events taking place in the years since the ESEA’s passage tend to buttress the belief that the race issue is still very much a part of the school aid scene. Since 1965 HEW has had to make a series of compromises in its desegregation compliance activities in order to placate angry Southern congressmen. An example of this is John Gardner’s December, 1967, promise to Georgia’s Senator Russell and others that the funds of school districts suspected of being in a “noncompliance posture” will not be cut off without lengthy advance notice. The post-ESEA effect of the race issue has been to erode gradually HEW’S authority to prohibit federal aid to school districts which are slow in complying with court decisions to desegregate. This has been a part of the necessary political price for keeping the ESEA alive and its funds flowing.

There is another facet of the race issue. Because the Civil Rights Act interposes the federal government between citizens and their state legislatures and local school boards, it periodically has the effect of transforming the racial controversy into a “federal control” issue. In the minds of some anti-desegregation congressmen, the federal government, by requiring racial desegregation, has usurped local and state decision-making prerogatives. These congressmen vent their wrath and frustration by making floor harangues against “federal control,” referring to the U.S. Commissioner of Education as the “commissar of education,” and voting against school aid bills.

To date, the ESEA has depended for passage and renewal upon the large number of non-Southern school aid proponents, and this bloc has proven ample to overcome those who harbor anti-desegregation feelings. This latter group will probably continue to harass school aid bills and gain small victories for some years to come. But, so long as the issue revolves only around prohibiting federal funds to the remnants of de jure racially segregated schools, the condition of non-Southern proponent dominance is likely to remain. Should the issue be enlarged, however, to include possible prohibition of federal funds to de facto racially segregated schools, the non-Southern cohesion might begin to dissolve. The irony of this situation is that a “Powell Amendment,” aimed at prohibiting federal funds to de facto segregated schools, could well be offered by a spiteful anti-desegregationist. And the probability exists that such an amendment could scuttle the school aid bill to which it was attached.

The federal control issue

Of all controversies associated with federal aid to education, this one is likely to draw the most attention and bring about the greatest reaction in the near future. The issue no longer revolves around whether or not the federal government should provide substantial funds for elementary and secondary education. The breadth and number of successfully passed education bills in the last decade resolved this question even prior to passage of the ESEA. A majority of both Republican and Democratic congressmen is favorably disposed toward the concept of federal aid to education. The current controversy centers around the form such aid should take; more specifically, what level of government should determine the priorities for which federal money shall be spent. Should priorities for federal funds continue to be established by Congress, or should such funds be allocated to states to be redistributed at their discretion to local districts?

Should priorities for federal funds continue to be established by Congress, or should such funds be allocated to states to be redistributed at their discretion to local districts?

Generally, Republicans tend to favor the block grant approach whereby states determine objectives for federal education funds. Conversely, Democrats, at least non-Southern Democrats, tend to favor the approach whereby federal funds are distributed in accord with specific congressionally determined categories. Despite these general partisan tendencies, considerable controversy develops across party lines. President Johnson’s overwhelming 1964 election victory provided him with an awesome reservoir from which to infer popular support for his legislative proposals. As a result, the President was able to invoke remarkable cohesion and support among Democrats, especially non-Southern Democrats, for the 1965 ESEA. Today, with Johnson’s political popularity no longer so evident, Democratic unity is considerably more difficult to obtain. In the spring of 1967, for example, a Republican proposal in the House of Representatives to convert the ESEA into a block grant bill authorizing substantial state discretion in allocating federal education funds won considerable bipartisan support. This proposal, the so-called Quie Bill, was defeated only by an all-out Johnson Administration effort to make the issue a matter of Democratic Party pride (“Republicans are out to kill a Democratic triumph, the ESEA”) . The final vote was a close victory for the Administration’s version of the bill.

In a number of statements made in 1967, Johnson Administration education officials have attempted to define “the best of all possible worlds” by supporting both points of view, that is, propounding the benefits of general or block grant aid to the states while extolling existing categorical legislation. In the face of continued funding limitations, however, it is likely that the compromise to be struck between these two approaches will be the gradual expansion of existing aid categories. Examples of this “generalization” would be the relaxation of ESEA Title I guidelines to allow for more school construction and the combination of ESEA instructional materials and textbook purchase authority (Title II) with the equipment purchase provision (Title III) of the NDEA.

Financial distribution

The basis on which federal funds should be distributed to local school districts is another area of controversy which has frequently accompanied federal aid proposals.

The distribution controversy contains at its core a conflict between educational desirability and political feasibility. It is generally conceded among educators that federal school finance formulas should contain the principle of “equalization”; that is, federal revenues generated in wealthy states would be distributed in a compensating fashion to less wealthy states. However, congressional spokesmen for wealthy states have tended to oppose school aid bills which returned proportionately less to their constituents than the latter had contributed in taxes to the federal treasury. Conversely, congressmen from poor states have seldom been favorably disposed  to school aid bills which did not allow their states proportionately more than their federal tax contribution. For several decades prior to 1965 no politically acceptable rationale could be found for an equalization formula. In arriving at the elimination of poverty as the justification for distributing federal funds, the designers of the ESEA may have provided their most significant legacy for future school aid bills. From the poverty rationale it was possible to deduce a distribution formula which met the classic political test of “something for everyone” while still retaining substantial value for education. The Title I formula components — number of children from low income and welfare-assisted families multiplied by one-half the national or a state’s average annual per pupil expenditure — represent an ingenious mix. It is estimated that 90 percent of all U.S. counties receive some federal assistance under this formula. At the same time, however, the particularly heavy educational needs of poverty-stricken large city and rural children are also served. The encl result is an educationally sound and politically acceptable federal aid distribution formula, the first of its kind with both flat grant and equalization features.

In arriving at the elimination of poverty as the justification for distributing federal funds, the designers of the ESEA may have provided their most significant legacy for future school aid bills.

The ESEA distribution formula is a compromise, and like most compromises it is probably not totally satisfactory to anyone. Its political beauty for the future, however, may lie in flexibility arising from the relative character of “poverty” as a concept and the expandable nature of the Title I formula components. For example, if the goal were to extend the scope of federal aid coverage, then the formula’s annual income standard for measuring poverty could be elevated to, for example, $4,000, thereby increasing the number of eligible children for whom a school district could receive federal assistance. Also, if greater equalization among states’ resources for education should be desired, then the formula’s “multiplier” could be changed from one-half a state’s own annual average expenditure per pupil to one-half the national average. Such an alteration ( already optional with the Congress-approved ESEA amendments) would have the effect of distributing a greater proportion of federal funds to less wealthy states. If increased aid to school construction were desired, then the only step necessary would be to relax USOE Title I administrative guidelines ( school construction is already authorized under existing Title I legislative language). If additional aid to urban cores were desired, then the act need only be amended to include children living in public housing projects as a formula component.

In short, the Title I formula and its poverty-oriented supporting rationale provide a politically attractive means for distributing federal funds without having to enact new legislation. This possibility for easy alteration may very well grant the law an enduring legislative life to serve as the vehicle for adding future federal aid-to-education increments.


Prior to enactment of the ESEA, many federal aid-to-education bills failed because they either did or did not authorize funds for church-related schools. School aid legislation is controversial for so many other reasons that the church-state partisans often swung the balance of power. If a proposed bill permitted federal funds to be used by church-related schools, opposition was mounted by “separationists.” Conversely, if the bill lacked such permissive arrangements, legislators with large, influential parochial school constituencies tended to vote against it. Thus, whereas advocates of Negro rights and increased centralization possessed sufficient voting power in 1965 to override segregationists and “local controllers,” the church-state issue was not amenable to such tactics. Combatants for each point of view were too influential and numerous; thus a compromise had to be effected.

The compromise resulted primarily from the painstaking efforts of Johnson Administration officials who acted as political brokers. The task of HEWOE personnel such as Wilbur Cohen, Francis Keppel, and Samuel Halperin was to identify educational provisions and legislative language with which spokesmen of previously antagonistic church-state interest groups could agree. The end product of these negotiations was a series of provisions in Titles I, II, and III whereby nonpublic school students could benefit from federal funds. These compromise provisions were nowhere nearly as extensive or generous as Catholic interest groups spokesmen desired. They were, nevertheless, accepted as a necessary political compromise in hopes that later gains would be forthcoming.

These same church-state provisions engendered considerable uneasiness for National Education Association and National Council of Churches spokesmen fearing that they encroached too far upon the ideological wall separating church and state. However, without such nonpublic school provisions, Catholic opposition might have arisen and been sufficient to prevent the ESEA’s passage. Consequently, a political alignment was formed consisting of groups such as the NEA, the National Catholic Welfare Conference,2 and the National Council of Churches. The alignment was somewhat queasy, but it nevertheless facilitated the ESEA’s passage and provided each of its components with at least a forkful of an ideal federal aid pie.

Another look at the roll call votes on final passage reveals the remarkable political success of the ESEA’s church-state compromise. There were more Roman Catholic congressmen in the 89th Congress than any of its 88 predecessors. In the House of Representatives, 93 Catholic congressmen were present and voted on final passage of the ESEA. They voted overwhelmingly for the bill, 84 to 9. If this bloc had voted negatively with the same degree of cohesion, it would have been sufficient to sink the ESEA. However, it did not vote negatively and the fact that a majority of both Catholic and non-Catholic congressmen voted favorably bespeaks the effectiveness, at least in the short run, of the 1965 compromise.

Despite the 1965 success, the church-state compromise is shaky and, some three years after its beginning, shows signs of fragmenting.

The difficulty for future federal aid-to-education legislation is that, despite the 1965 success, the church-state compromise is shaky and, some three years after its beginning, shows signs of fragmenting. The original alignment was based almost totally upon political expediency, with very little by way of a solid core of mutual agreement upon ends and means. Moreover, the arrangement from expediency rested uneasily upon a decade or more of political disagreement over previous school aid proposals. Consequently, permanent bonds have not developed. In fact, tensions have begun to arise over subsequent administration of the nonpublic school provisions. Also, during recent attempts to amend the ESEA, the NEA and the U.S. Catholic Conference found themselves tending toward opposite sides. The tension mounts as a growing body of church-state cases percolates up through the nation’s system of appellate courts. To date, the Supreme Court has not chosen to consider school aid church-state provisions head-on. The possibility exists, however, that at some future date the Supreme Court will judge the ESEA’s nonpublic school aid provisions to be unconstitutional. Should this happen, future federal aid bills could be severely jeopardized. Catholics might become school aid opponents in an effort to persuade Congress either to find new grounds for a church-state compromise or to revise the Constitution. If Catholics as a bloc began to oppose, their position as a balance of power and their influence over 20 to 25 percent of congressional seats could cause defeat for future school aid bills for some time to come.

A digression for personalities

Political controversies, of course, do not occur in a vacuum; they depend for their existence upon human actors. And, at least in the House of Representatives, the school aid supporting cast appears to be either tiring or losing its power. The ESEA owed much of its original success to the able leadership of congressmen such as Wayne Morse, Adam Clayton Powell, Carl Perkins, Speaker John McCormack, and Majority Leader Carl Albert. This group was given first-rate assistance by representatives such as John Brademas, Hugh Carey, and James O’Hara. When supported by an overwhelming Democratic Party majority (295 to 140 in the House and 68 to 32 in the Senate in 1965) this group was remarkably effective in the battle for federal aid. Such dynamic leadership does not appear evident in the 90th Congress.

Political controversies, of course, do not occur in a vacuum; they depend for their existence upon human actors.

Each successive year finds McCormack and Albert physically less able to perform vital leadership duties expected of their offices. Adam Clayton Powell is now missing altogether and, even if his successor, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Carl Perkins, should be so inclined, it would be difficult for him to play as strong a role. In 1966, a disaffected group of Powell’s committee members revolted and severely curtailed his powers as chairman. Powell was subsequently removed from his congressional seat by the entire House, but the chair’s powers have not been returned. Thus Carl Perkins is somewhat helpless to exercise the strong leadership that many of his critics think is necessary to further the cause of school aid bills. Several persons have risen to fill the leadership vacuum. By almost any reckoning the fastest rising power is Congresswoman Edith Green of Oregon. Mrs. Green has gravitated politically to a middle position where her support for decentralized administration of federal programs appeals to a revitalized conservative Republican-Southern Democrat coalition. At the same time, her strong position in favor of additional broad-scale federal aid to education endears her to large numbers of public school professionals. Her actions are utterly frustrating to many congressional colleagues and Administration officials who believe that a degree of centralized decision making is necessary in order to derive maximum educational benefit from federal dollars. These opponents have attached to her such endearing labels as the “Smiling Cobra” and “the only witch in the world whose broom has a sidecar” (presumably for carrying conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats). For her part, Mrs. Green appears relatively unperturbed by such labels. She seems secure in the knowledge that, at the moment anyway, she wields a remarkable degree of political influence and thus will have a substantial amount to say in shaping the future of federal aid to education.

On the Republican side of the House aisle, Congressman Albert Quie has emerged as a particular power on education matters. Last year Quie proposed an amendment to the ESEA which would have converted it to a block grant bill. States would have received federal funds and could have distributed them more in accord with their own criteria. Quie was not totally sure of his ground and did not receive wholehearted support from his own party. Thus he was forced eventually to modify his amendment to the point where it was not very different from the ESEA it proposed to convert. Also, Quie ran head-on into a determined White House-HEW-congressional liaison team which artfully maneuvered interest group support and key individuals in both parties to the point where the block grant proposal lost in a dramatic legislative showdown. Nevertheless, Quie came close and undoubtedly learned much in the process. He will try again and must be counted in any assessment of those who will influence future school aid bills. This is doubly true in that Quie and Mrs. Green often see eye-to-eye on matters of federal educational policy.

In the Senate, school aid would seem to be in somewhat more predictable hands. The Senate has had a more forceful tradition favoring federal aid to education. Whereas, prior to 1965, the House had passed a broad-scale school aid bill only twice, the Senate had approved such a measure on eight separate occasions. This tradition of support was begun under the late Senator Robert A. Taft, and the leadership role has subsequently come to rest with the senior Oregon Senator; Wayne Morse, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education. Morse performed in extraordinary fashion in persuading the Senate to adopt the House version of the 1965 ESEA, thus avoiding an arch nemesis of school aid bills, a House-Senate conference committee. However, in subsequent years, Morse has not seemed to exhibit the same degree of influence over Senate school aid matters. Undoubtedly, a partial explanation of this decrease is the overall Democratic Party decline and Lyndon Johnson’s loss of popularity. However, it is possible that other factors such as his outspoken critical position on Vietnam detract from Morse’s effectiveness on education bills. However, even though Morse’s image as Senate school aid leader is somewhat tarnished, he seems to have no immediate challenger.

In conclusion

A combination of favorable social and political circumstances enabled the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to circumvent and overwhelm traditional school aid roadblocks. It is doubtful, however, that any of these roadblocks was resolved for all time.

A combination of favorable social and political circumstances enabled the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to circumvent and overwhelm traditional school aid roadblocks. It is doubtful, however, that any of these roadblocks was resolved for all time. On the contrary, since 1965 race and “federal control” controversies have reasserted themselves and have resulted in restraints being attached to the original ESEA. Moreover, in the future there is a strong possibility that the religious issue will reappear and school aid will again face all the traditional and treacherous 3 R’s, Race, Reds, and Religion. A counterargument to the above prognosis may exist in the ESEA’s poverty rationale and Title I distribution formula, a combination which·appears to possess sufficient political popularity and legislative flexibility to serve as the basis for future federal aid increments. However, optimism about even incremental gains must be tempered by the somewhat unpredictable nature of the present congressional school aid leadership. The end product from this mixture of countervailing forces is likely to be increased and increasingly partisan congressional school aid debate. The probability is high that present categorical aid programs may be expanded as a result of this debate, but overall policy decisions about the use of federal school aid funds are likely to remain in the hands of Congress for some years to come.

1Stephen K. Bailey, the political scientist, once characterized federal aid to education as having traditionally been embroiled in three categories of controversy: Race, Religion, and Reds. Bailey includes this issue under the heading of “Reds,” or federal control, but it has proven sufficiently lethal for previous school aid bills to warrant consideration in its own right.


Citation: Guthrie, J.W. (1968). A political case history: Passage of the ESEA  The Phi Delta Kappan, 49 (6), 302-306

JAMES W. GUTHRIE was assistant professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley and is currently a professor at Lynn University.

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ESEA at 50