Case Overview, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over the reauthoriation of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.



          Traditionally elementary and secondary education has been a local responsibility. Funding and policymaking responsibility is primarily lodged within cities or counties and the school districts that traverse them. The federal role grew slowly until the Great Society of President Lyndon Johnson when new programs to help schools were created. Chief among them was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965. “It’s the mother of all education programs,” said one observer.

          Over time Title I of ESEA has become an important source of funding for local school districts. Current appropriations run around $8 billion a year and it provides support for a variety of programs, including school construction and teacher training. Generally it’s designed to aid school districts that have a high percentage of disadvantaged students. More specifically, the goal of the many programs funded under ESEA/Title I is to raise academic achievement by providing support for school-wide programs or for assistance to individual students. For the Democrats who championed the original bill and have provided strong continuing support since, ESEA is a way of addressing the differences in financial support available to suburban and inner city schools. The funding system at the state and local level is “inadequate and inequitable” noted a lobbyist for school systems.

          There has always been an ideological split between liberals and conservatives over the programmatic focus of ESEA. The two sides have also differed on funding amounts and what strings to attach. ESEA was up for reauthorization in the 106th Congress, but divisions between Democrats and Republicans and the impending presidential election made an agreement difficult. President Clinton wanted funding for 100,000 new teachers so average classroom size could be reduced. Democrats were also keen to pass a bill with a generous amount set aside for school construction. Republicans instead wanted a large bloc grant that would give states and cities the discretion to decide themselves what the money should be spent on. Both sides agreed that something more was needed to force local schools to measure their performance under new standards related to programs funded by Washington, though they had different views of what those measures should be. In the end no reauthorization could be enacted. Some smaller bills passed but the distance between the parties on the central issues at the heart of the ESEA could not be bridged.



          Among the most vocal and active lobbies on ESEA were the two large teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The Council of the Great City Schools and the American Association of School Administrators were active participants, as were associations representing school boards and state board of educations. The educational groups concerned about ESEA formed an informal coalition that met every week or two. Said one lobbyist from one of the groups, “The one good thing about the Republican takeover of the House is that it forced us in the education community to work together.” Although there are some conservative citizens groups active in the education area, they didn’t appear to be significantly involved on either the proposed reauthorization or appropriation for ESEA.

          The leading congressional figures were Rep. Bill Goodling (R.-PA), chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee in the House and Sen. James Jeffords (R.-VT), chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the Senate. On the administration side, Secretary of Education Richard Riley was a major influence and his special assistant, Susan Frost worked the ESEA issue. At the White House, domestic adviser Bruce Reed was the most important participant.




          All involved regard themselves as a proponent—everyone is in favor of providing help to schools—but the Democrats and the educational lobby were clearly more eager to pass a reauthorization in the 106th Congress than were the Republicans. The large and diverse set of organizations backing ESEA had many different interests in the broad legislation. The two teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT were primarily concerned about the scope of financial support for school construction, teacher training, and a reduction in classroom size. Many of the educational groups were at odds with the White House over accountability. As part of its Goals 2000 initiative earlier in the administration, the Clinton administration had been successful in incorporating some standards-based programs into ESEA. The basic idea is to set specific goals for teachers and students to meet over a fixed period of time. During this time the White House and Department of Education were trying to formulate the next round of standards. Said one Education Department official, “If you have standards, how do know if they’re working?” Yet some of the Department’s natural allies regard standards imposed by Washington intrusion into the traditional autonomy granted to teachers.


          Republicans were caught between two conflicting options. On the one hand they weren’t terribly interested in helping the Democrats out before the election. They didn’t have the votes for the policies they were really interested in passing, like vouchers, and they preferred to wait, hopefully, for the election of a Republican president. On the other hand, surveys showed that voters believed the Democrats were the better of the two parties on education issues and some in the GOP felt that passing something was probably better than passing nothing. Republicans were unenthusiastic about a big construction program and, as noted above, preferred instead to make bloc grants so that school districts could make their own decisions as to how federal dollars would best be spent. Republicans have long argued for more local control and regard the replacement of categorical programs with bloc grants as an essential component of educational reform. A number of the education organizations were ardently opposed to bloc grants. “We need a predictable source of revenue” said one lobbyist for schools.


          The most significant impediment to bringing a bill forth was the partisan division in both houses. The inability of the two parties to work together on this issue represents something more than just the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats: the two parties have often been effective in negotiating differences in the interest of passing legislation. “The only reason that ESEA [has not been reauthorized] is partisanship,” fumed one Department of Education official. Republicans would surely say the same thing.



          The main venue for this case was the Congress, most notably the two education and two appropriations committees. The White House and Department of Education were involved and meetings with client groups took place at both locations.


Lobbying Activities and Tactics

          The lobbying on this issue was extensive. There is a vast array of educational groups with offices in Washington and the stakes were very high as ESEA is a huge catch-all incorporating many different programs. ESEA funding is a critical pool of money for schools and the lobbying on this bill has always been extensive. The education groups worked together but each emphasized different parts of the program and their lobbying reflected those priorities. The groups worked with their friends in Congress and had lines of communication open to Goodling and Jeffords. They also had good access to the Department of Education.