The Battle for Control: A Historical Catalogue of Political Agendas

Public education in America has a long and winding history. The past half century has seen some of the most substantial shifts in control, shifts away from the local authority of parents and teachers and to the distant centralized, bureaucratic control of state and federal government. These shifts have a less-than-impressive track record of improving education and have exacted a steep sociological cost to American families.

Federal money and with it tighter federal control first began to take a serious foothold in locally managed public education in the 1950s. Since then, parents and teachers have endured a continuous barrage of policy initiatives that compromise the effectiveness of teaching children and the absolute authority of parents to raise their children without interference from the state.


In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of his “War on Poverty.” ESEA marked the beginning of federal intrusion into multiple areas of education such as identifying and funding at-risk children and low-income schools while increasing per-pupil expenditures. Johnson described the law as: “The most sweeping educational bill ever to come before Congress. It represents a major new commitment of the Federal Government to quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people.” ii  

Under the cry of bringing equality to an educational system plagued by the fight over segregation, Johnson’s “War on Poverty” began the ESEA program known as Title 1: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged, which is still in existence today. ESEA was the first major call for federal involvement in public schools. The Act, according to the Johnson administration, would provide more equitable economic and social opportunities for all students. iii  But in the almost five decades since it first became a reality in American schools, Title 1 funds have hardly fulfilled the promises made by the architects of Johnson’s Great Society.

Take for instance the achievement gaps in average math scores between black and white public school students at age 9, which narrowed by only eight points between 1978 and 2004. iv  The gap in average reading scores for the exact same demographic decreased by only six points. v So much for the big government promises made by President Johnson upon signing this federal behemoth: “By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children.” (Table 1) vi  The promises of the Great Society have proven a failure; achievement scores have flat lined for over three decades!



In 1979, President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., expanded the U.S. Office of Education’s role by making the Office of Education a Cabinet-level agency by signing the Department of Education Reorganization Act. In his address upon signing the Act, Carter stated: “The Department of Education bill will allow the Federal Government to meet its responsibilities in education more effectively, more efficiently and more responsively.” vii  This change initiated the current era of executive branch control of public education.

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