FROM LYNDON JOHNSON TO BARACK OBAMA: FEDERAL LEGISLATION THAT OVERTURNED CIVIL RIGHTS EDUCATION FOR POOR CHILDREN
Mukasa Afrika Ma’at
Monday, February 29, 2016
“…the field of education has been a battle ground in the freedom struggle…
Historically to keep Negroes in oppression they were deprived of education. In slave days in many states it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write. With the ending of slavery and the emergence of quasi-freedom, Negroes were only partially educated–sufficient to make their work efficient but insufficient to raise them to equality…
It is precisely because education is the road to equality and citizenship that it has been made more elusive for Negroes than many other rights. The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge (them) in second-class status…
…The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools… We squander funds… on the over-abundance of over-kill armament, but we pauperize education.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1964 receiving an award from the United Federation of Teachers
As children we sat in classrooms and learned that the Civil Rights Movement was a thing of the past, from the 60s. The chapters and textbooks all ended with the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and/or the assassination of MLK. However, the Civil Rights Movement is not a book of the past. Half a century ago, the words of Dr. King about equity in education to bring about the equality of society are as true then as they are now.
Over the last half century, the major federal legislation on education have been indirectly or directly related to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The rising poverty rates of the nation and the civil right’s protest pressure from the time had forced Johnson’s War on Poverty to include an educational component. The African American protest had changed the political and social landscape of the nation. Lyndon Johnson had every intention for the legacy of his administration to go down on the right side of the history pages. The LBJ War on Poverty
was intended to reduce and prevent poverty through four pieces of legislation 1. Social Security 2. The Food Stamp Act 3. The Economic Opportunity Act and 4. ESEA. ESEA of 1965
was intended to address the high poverty of the poor in America through Title I funding in schools. Low income, high poverty families would need more educational services to prevent the cycle of poverty from generation-to-generation repeating itself. Title VII of 1968 amended the ESEA with funding under the Bilingual Education Act. The premise of ESEA was the right move for the nation. The idea that “children from low-income homes required more educational services than children from affluent homes” was and still is a recognition of the civil right of poor children to an equal education through equity. However, ESEA failed because it did not then or now provide enough equity in funding to bring equality and reduce or prevent poverty. ESEA has remained in federal legislation while poverty has grown.
Major reform would occur in 1994. This reform should have been a re-commitment to the initial legislation and an increase in funding to bring education equity which never happened in 1965 onwards with ESEA. From 1965 to 1994, urban poverty grew across America. Drugs fell on inner-city communities like an avalanche. Gangs of the 60’s turned into heavily-armed and well financed super-gangs through the illegal drug trade. Drop out rates soared, the prison industrial complex became a global corporate competitor, and unemployment exploded. The crises which made ESEA necessary in 1965 grew exponentially by 1994. However, the new federal legislation would avoid the urgency of education equity reducing and eliminating poverty and would shift to discourse and legislation around academic standards. ESEA was civil rights legislation. The re-authorizations afterwards systematically overturned civil rights education.
The Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) of 1994 along with the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act were re-authorizations and reform legislation of ESEA under the Clinton administration. Richard Riley, Secretary of Education
stated that twenty years of research were dedicated to reforms primarily around students achieving high academic standards. These reforms of the Clinton administration set the present era in motion by shifting dialog away from the language of equity funding to standards driven education. No longer was it a question of providing funds for equitable education to the children of families in poverty. The questions shifted to the need to raise the rigor of standards instruction to bring equity. Essentially, the Clinton administration’s IASA played a role in excusing the federal government from civil right education equity mandated under Johnson, although the needed funds to properly educate impoverished children were never provided under any administration, including Johnson’s. Yet, how can standards raise children into education equity when districts are unequally funded?
The next re-authorization of ESEA was under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) signed in 2002. The unrealistic goal of NCLB was that every child in the nation would achieve proficiency in reading and math by 2014. How were the districts throughout the nation to achieve this goal? Corrective actions and school takeovers were threatened for schools that failed to make Adequately Yearly Progress (AYP). The Bush administration went from the Clinton administration’s discourse around standards and rigor to a more punitive approach to force proficiency, further moving the Johnson administration’s civil rights education funding mandate to the extreme periphery of national consciousness. No longer was education a civil right. No longer was equity in funding related to reduction in poverty and increase in educational success.
President Barack Obama, an African American who was Senator from Illinois with office and home on the South Side of Chicago ran on campaign slogans of “Hope and Change” and “transforming America”. For these reasons, some thought that education equity and civil rights would be restored. These hopes would not last very long. The Obama administration did not return the dialog back to civil rights education equity for the poor, but instead followed in the re-authorization legislation of Clinton and Bush.
Interestingly, President Johnson and President Obama both faced economic crises and developed a strategy to address those crises related to unemployment and other problems. Part of the package to address the economic problems for each included an educational component. However, Johnson’s War on Poverty of 1964 and his ESEA of 1965 were both more enduring than Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and Race to the Top of 2010. Johnson had used more direct language about helping the “poor” and “low income” achieve equity with the “affluent” of the nation while Obama spoke more about “economic stimulus” and “job creation”. We were in an era where civil rights were no longer central in political discourse, but the need had only grown worse.
Race to the Top (RTT) of 2009 fell in line with the Bush’s NCLB of 2002 and Clinton’s IASA of 1994 in overturning civil rights education and continuing the shift in discourse to standards. The national consciousness on achieving education success was about standards instead of funding. RTT would use incentives to push Common Core standards, incentives as opposed to NCLB’s punitive approach. RTT’s push was still standards driven and not equity funding driven.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 by the Obama openly states that it is distancing itself from Bush’s NCLB. It does not state but is also distancing itself from RTT. Under ESSA, states will be able to more easily reject the Common Core standards and the NCLB’s unrealistic goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 is being abandoned along with Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Nonetheless, ESSA still centers political discourse around standards and not funding equity.
From Clinton’s IASA to the Obama administration policies, the Johnson era education civil rights policies, pushed because of the activists of the country, have been sidetracked into the outer left field of debates around standards.Meanwhile, there is exponentially more poverty, unemployment, crime, and suffering among the poor than in 1965. Let us revive and remember the still relevant words of a courageous man who once told us that “the field of education has been a battle ground in the freedom struggle.”
Mukasa Afrika Ma’at
He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Black Studies from CSU. He earned a Master of Science in Education Administration from GMU and a Master of Arts in Inner-City Studies Educational Leadership from NEIU. He is an historian, author, blogger, and poet. He has done critical essays on Black Leadership, politics, and culture along with extensive research and essays on Afrikan-Centered education. Mukasa Ma’at is a Black Belt martial arts specialist and instructor. He developed and founded Ma’at-Sumu, a full mixed-martial arts combat system. He is also an education administrator of an Afrikan-Centered charter school in Philadelphia and has supported Afrikan-Centered schools and CIBI his entire career.