Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Johnson:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The Johnson Years: ESEA Title I - Distribution

In order to secure as much ESEA money as possible, school districts throughout the country implemented major organizational changes. Many states and even some local districts launched centralized bureaus specifically for the purpose of maximizing federal grant receipts. For example, the Boston public schools created a new Office of Program Development, and the Milwaukee public schools created a bluntly named Department of Federal Projects, both of which supervised applications for federal funds. As one reporter noted with respect to Milwaukee's department, "The beauty of federal aid. . . is that you can be paid for asking for it. School officials say that the cost of the proposed Department of Federal Projects to get federal aid will [itself] be financed by, you guessed it, federal aid." Indeed, even relatively wealthy school districts took advantage of the availability of ESEA grants. In Wisconsin, the affluent Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay accepted $25,000 in ESEA funds in 1967-funds the suburb used to start a new special education program for children with learning disabilities.

To critics who charged that Whitefish Bay was "stealing" money that was, in fact, intended for the poor, the city's representative in Congress responded, "If they [his fellow members of Congress] write stupid laws, well, that's their problem." It was this sort of blatant manipulation of aid and disregard for the law's underlying purposes, however, that led to worries that the ESEA might become a financial delivery system with no real effect on school programs or student achievement in low-income areas. During hearings on the law before its passage, Senator Robert Kennedy (D-NY) had insisted that the ESEA include regular evaluations to ensure that federal aid was, in fact, producing measurable gains in student achievement, but this provision went frequently ignored. As Julie Roy Jeffrey has observed, federal officials were "hesitant to push for evaluations, realizing that these might show the act was not working and, thus, would provide the enemies of federal aid with political ammunition." As early as 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy told colleagues that "I question whether anything is being accomplished in a major way [with Title I]. . . .  I also seriously question whether the people in the ghettos feel anything is really being done." The ESEA quickly sparked controversy between state and federal officials over which level of government was best equipped to control the law's implementation.


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