Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson sat down at a table in Texas to sign one of the most important pieces of education legislation in the history of the U.S. You may never have heard of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by name, but it undoubtedly affected your life.
Like most pieces of landmark legislation, the ESEA had many components, and those components have been amended over time. But at its heart, the ESEA was about using the power (and the purse) of the federal government to create more equity among the nation's schools. Johnson conceived it as part of his War on Poverty. It also became a key milestone in the civil rights movement.
Johnson signed the law outside a schoolhouse where he had been a student. In his remarks that day, he did not mince words about what he hoped the law could achieve:
As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is only valid in its passport from poverty, the only valid passport. As a former teacher – and I hope a future one – I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all our young people. As president of the United States, I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.
And if you've never heard of the ESEA by name, you might know it by the name it was given in 2002, during its most recent reauthorization: The No Child Left Behind Act.