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The 1978 Reauthorization of ESEA

Advocates and opponents of bilingual education, women's equity in education, and education for children with disabilities continued working through the complicated process of implementation, the approval of regulations and guidelines, and providing the relevant agencies with the needed resources to make a federal program work. In the meantime, the Democrats returned to the White House. President Carter had many problems on his hands, and in education, he was mostly preoccupied with creating a new Department of Education. Meanwhile, veteran staff at the Office of Education and in Congressional education committees carried on the development of a revised ESEA.

The impetus for a Department of Education arose during the 1976 election campaign, when Carter courted the National Education Association's support; in the process he agreed to support its longtime goal of creating a separate department with Cabinet status. Carter eventually focused on the promised department and gathered various West Wing staff to work on details, especially the issue of which federal programs would be transferred to it from other agencies.

Meanwhile, the reauthorization of ESEA loomed important. Much of the leadership for the reauthorization came from Marshall “Mike” Smith, assistant commissioner of education for policy. Smith was a veteran of ESEA purposes, policies, and problems and a veteran Office of Education official. The commissioner, Ernest Boyer, former chancellor of the State University of New York, advocated in Congress for ESEA along with HEW Secretary Anthony (Joe) Califano. But Boyer was otherwise mostly involved in the disputes about what programs should be in the new Department of Education, while Califano openly opposed losing the Office of Education, which he thought belonged in an organization that combined education with health and welfare matters.

Smith and his colleagues developed the Office of Education's proposed ESEA legislation and conferred with Congressional staff continually. Among the key House staff were Jack Jennings and Chris Cross. Jennings, a Democrat, was majority counsel to the House Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education, and Cross, a Republican, was minority senior staff member. They worked well with each other and with Smith. A lengthy document emerged, went to the President for approval, and then went to the relevant Congressional committees for further negotiations.

Evaluations of Title I in the early 1970s had discovered widespread misuse of funds, questioned whether the funds were properly targeted at kids in high-poverty schools, and saw little evidence that the programs were working to improve academic achievement (McLaughlin 1975; Vinovskis 1999a). In response, Congress in 1974 commissioned a three-year study headed by Paul Hill at the new National Institute of Education (NIE). The legislative report by the House of Representatives' Committee on Education and Labor, when introducing the 1978 bill, stated that the NIE study had convinced them that the funds were now effectively targeted, explaining that while Title I provided only 5 % of the elementary and secondary education budgets nationwide, many poor districts reported levels up to 17 %. As for results, NIE found that Title I students tended not to fall behind their “non-assisted peers.” Part of the NIE research was a case study of 12 districts, which showed much better academic gains than in previous evaluations. Carl Perkins, chair of the Education Committee, concluded, “Title I has matured into a viable approach for aiding the disadvantaged.” [1]

The committee's optimistic report would not end criticisms of Title I's efficiency in raising students' scores. In fact, another study was ongoing at the same time. Called the “Sustaining Effects” study, it followed 130,000 students in 300 schools for three years. Study director Launor Carter pointed out the participation problems: Many poor children were in non-Title I schools that did not qualify as having a sufficient concentration of poor families. Conversely, many low-achieving students who were in Title I schools but were not economically disadvantaged were in Title I instructional programs. Furthermore, students with very low achievement levels got little benefit from Title I; those with somewhat higher achievement at the beginning benefited the most. These and other qualms caused Carter to say that Title I was not “a unified or coherent treatment program” and needed a “new program with more intensive and innovative techniques” to bring success to the lowest achieving students (Carter 1984).

The Office of Education staff, in consultation with education experts in Congress, came up with several substantial reforms for the 1978 authorization, working mainly with Congress but giving regular reports to the White House staff and getting their ideas vetted and approved by the Office of Management and Budget. Among these changes were allocating a higher per-pupil expenditure to Title I students in schools with a large concentration of high-poverty families (which Congress set at 55 %); pressing Title I programs to rely less upon “pullout” programs and to integrate Title I students into regular classrooms with special assistance; allowing schools with 75 % or more percentage of children from homes below the poverty line to spend Title I funds on “whole school” programs and improvements; providing matching funds to states that had put money into their own compensatory education programs; providing better professional development for experienced teachers in the field; engaging in better planning and development of bilingual education; encouraging states to equalize resources among districts; deepening parental participation by requiring districts to pay for their transportation to and from meetings; and requiring districts to submit plans about the training of parent council members.

Beyond Title I, the 1978 Amendments had several other titles related to equal opportunity: Title II for basic skills improvement, Title VI for “emergency aid” to desegregating schools, Title VII for bilingual education, Title IX for women's education equity, and Title XI for Indian education. [2] The collaboration and constant communication between Office of Education staff and key Congressional advocates was crucial in producing a reauthorization bill with bipartisan support.

  • [1] HR. Rep. No. 29-553 at 6-7. (Excerpt of a Report on the Education Amendments of 1978). Available online through HathiTrust at
  • [2] Education Amendments of 1978, 92 Stat. 2143 (Washington, D.C.: Public Law 95-561, 95th Cong (1978); interview with Marshall Smith, September 24, 2013; Cross (2014, 70–74); Jennings (2015, 35–42).
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