25 Reasons ESEA Would Benefit From Reforms in the Straight A's Act

Report Education

25 Reasons ESEA Would Benefit From Reforms in the Straight A's Act

October 7, 1999 22 min read
Nina Rees
Senior Research Fellow

As Members of Congress debate the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), they should consider evidence of its effectiveness. Enacted in 1965 as one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society initiatives, the act was intended to narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and their upper-income peers. Thirty-four years later, that gap has widened--poor students lag behind an average of 20 percentage points2 although the scope of ESEA has broadened considerably.

The original 32-page act now encompasses over 1,000 pages with over 60 programs ranging from basic aid to school districts to programs that promote gender equity, school safety, and technology. Despite this increase in its size and scope, however, ESEA has not improved the academic achievement of poor students. Some of its mandates explicitly stand in the way of creative state and local reforms; others force state and local officials to be more concerned with paperwork than performance. As Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan notes:

Every minute we spend making sure we're in compliance with pages of federal regulations means one less minute we can spend helping teachers with professional development, improving curriculum, developing our own testing standards, and ensuring that all students are getting all the help they need to succeed.3

Today, education is a high priority of state and local elected officials like Keegan and their constituents. In considering ESEA's reauthorization this year, Congress has its best opportunity in 34 years to return power and dollars to the states and local districts and make academic achievement a priority once again. Members should consider reforms such as those in a proposal before Congress called the "Straight A's Act" (H.R. 2300/S. 1266),4 which would allow interested states or localities to focus their federal education dollars on the programs of their choice. In return, those states or localities would have to demonstrate that all their students are improving academically.

The act's reforms offer the best way for Congress to jump-start state efforts to promote academic achievement and deliver on President Johnson's dream to "bridge the gap between helplessness and hope."5 Specifically, the reforms proposed in the Straight A's Act would:

  • Give states and local jurisdictions more flexibility to consolidate and administer federal ESEA funds as they see fit in exchange for agreed-upon academic results;

  • Recognize and reward states and localities that succeed in improving academic achievement; and

  • Apply strict sanctions to states and localities that fail, including the withdrawal of flexibility or federal funds in the most egregious circumstances.

In considering ESEA's reauthorization, Members of Congress have a choice: They can continue to feed failure by funding current ESEA programs without a serious review of their effectiveness or they can switch the focus of federal education policymaking to reforms that would empower the states and local districts and promote academic achievement.

Here are 25 reasons why the 34-year-old ESEA should be reformed:

  1. 11,000 Failing Schools.
    Of the 11,000 Title I schools identified for program improvement (schools that fall below state academic standards) in 1994-1995 in the U.S. Department of Education's 1996 Title I Interim Report, over 5,500 had been in program improvement for at least two years, almost 1,000 for at least four years, and over 100 since the 1988 Title I accountability requirements went into effect.6

  2. Poor Minority Students Trapped in Underperforming Schools.
    Although the federal government requires all states to identify Title I schools that need improvement, as of January 1999, only 19 states had established comprehensive policies to comply with that requirement.7 These states listed a total of 1,024 underperforming schools with about 602,000 enrolled students. Four in 10 of the underperforming schools had minority enrollments exceeding 90 percent, compared with just 11 percent of schools in the nation as a whole. In about 75 percent of the schools needing improvement, more than half of the students were poor enough to qualify for federal free lunches.

  3. Low Expectations.
    In monitoring the performance of low-income children served by Title I, the U.S. Department of Education evaluates them against only the "Basic" level of achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests instead of the far more demanding "Proficient" level other students are expected to attain. When these levels were chosen originally, "Basic" was seen as a step toward proficiency; it now appears that federal officials see it as the goal and expect poor children to progress no further.8

  4. Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor Students.
    Congress has continued to increase Title I funding despite a paucity of sound studies demonstrating its effectiveness. The research cited most often involves two federally funded longitudinal studies, supervised by the U.S. Department of Education, entitled Sustaining Effects and Prospects.9 Sustaining Effects gathered data for three years beginning in 1976 on 120,000 students in over 300 elementary schools.10 Similarly, Prospects studied 40,000 students over three years beginning in 1991.11 Wayne Riddle, an education finance specialist at the Congressional Research Service, reported in 1996 on the inconclusive findings of these two studies and five other major national Title I studies. Although the methods and results of the studies he reviewed vary considerably, Riddle found in all cases that the achievement gains of Title I participants are generally modestly greater than projections or estimates of what the results would have been without Title I services. However, he found that Title I participants tend to increase their achievement levels at the same rate as "nondisadvantaged" pupils, so "gaps" in achievement do not change significantly.12

  5. Lack of Accountability.
    Professor Maris Vinovskis of the University of Michigan testified before a Senate committee on the issue of federal program accountability:

It is disappointing that having spent more than $150 billion on those compensatory education services, we still do not know which practices and programs are particularly effective.... For Head Start and Title I, these evaluations have not even attempted to ascertain in a rigorous and systematic manner, which components of their programs have been successful.13

  1. Some Unserved High-Poverty Schools.
    Many Title I advocates are concerned about the current system of distributing the bulk of Title I funds; students in low-poverty districts are treated the same as those in high-poverty districts. As a result, although Title I funds find their way into nearly every school district in the nation, some high-poverty schools go unserved. In New York State, for instance, one study found that 63 percent of schools with poverty rates ranging from 0 percent to 10 percent received Title I funding during the 1992-1993 school year. But nearly 15 percent of the schools with poverty rates ranging from 50 percent to 60 percent received no funds at all.14 Nationally that year, 19 percent of the highest-poverty schools (with at least 75 percent of the students qualifying as poor) did not receive any Title I funds.15

  2. An Obscure Program?
    A 1998 U.S. Department of Education study shows that only 43 percent of the principals of Title I-eligible schools reported some familiarity with its eight key provisions. In addition, principals were generally unaware of the extent of the reforms required by law following the last Title I reauthorization in 1994.16

  3. Silent Guidance.
    The U.S. Department of Education surveyed Title I district administrators and private school representatives in 1997 regarding Title I services to eligible students in private schools. It found that about 30 percent of those surveyed had not received the Department's policy guidance on Title I services to private school students. Moreover, private school officials indicated that they had considerably fewer consultations with federal Education Department personnel than the Department's personnel had reported.17

  4. Aides, Not Teachers.
    Most Title I funds are used to hire clerical workers and classroom aides who lack the expertise to teach poor students the skills they need to compete with their more affluent peers. "It's pretty significant that half of the instructional staff under Title I were paraprofessionals," says Val Plisko, who supervises independent evaluations for the U.S. Department of Education's Planning and Evaluation Service. "For children who are most at-risk, you want the best-educated, the most knowledgeable, the most effective teachers." Mary Jean LeTendre, a federal education official who oversees Title I and other programs for disadvantaged students, said that in some cases, employment of Title I aides has amounted to "a jobs program for members of the community." She added, "I am one who believes that this program needs to be focused on the needs of the kids."18

  5. Parental Dismay.
    Long-time advocates of Title I such as Phyllis McClure, a former monitor for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund who kept a watchful eye on Title I compliance, now raise questions about the program's efficacy. McClure recalled hearing complaints from African-American parents that the program relegated their children to a second-class education. "When black parents were taking their kids out of Title I because...they weren't getting the regular math, they were getting something low-level...I changed my mind," said McClure, who six years ago led a federal task force to assess Title I. "This program isn't working as it was intended to work."19

  6. Sidelining Parents.
    A report by the U.S. Department of Education found that almost half of Title I schools report that the lack of staff training in working with parents is a great or moderate barrier to parental involvement. The Department's Report to Congress states that "it remains to be seen how well federal and state efforts to foster family-school partnerships will support the successful development of school-family partnerships in Title I schools."20

  7. Handicapping Charter Schools.
    Charter schools, because of their unique vision of public education and their desire to remove restrictive legislative regimes, often attract more demanding students who frequently are entitled to Title I funding. Despite this, many charter schools are unable to access the Title I resources that will support low-income, special education, and at-risk students. In a survey of 16 states, only 53 percent of charter schools reporting Title I eligibility received Title I funding. Although this situation has improved slightly, charter schools still do not receive the funding to which they are entitled. A combination of federal regulations and reluctant state agencies places barriers in the way of such schools.21 For example, Central Michigan University Assistant to the Dean Mamie T. Thorns told a congressional subcommittee that "Many [Michigan] charter schools do not receive some categorical funding because of administrative issues and the complexity of Title I eligibility," even though 75 percent of children in the state's charter schools are eligible for Title I funding.22

  8. Administrative Costs.
    Charter school directors report they have no time (and sometimes lack the sophistication) to fill out all the forms and follow all the rules required to receive ESEA funding, especially when the financial payoff is so thin. During briefings by state officials to explain how to apply for funds in the Eisenhower math/science program (Title II funding), for example, they were told that the estimated dollar yield for a typical charter school is just a few hundred dollars. Once obtained, the funds can be spent only for narrowly defined purposes.23

  9. Wasting Taxpayer Dollars.
    In 1998, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley reportedly was "concerned" about the results of the Safe and Drug Free Schools (SDFS) program, which the U.S. Department of Education described as the federal government's key student drug prevention program.24 According to General Barry R. McCaffrey, the Administration's drug czar, the program simply "mails out checks" without holding anyone accountable for results. In his words, "There are almost no constraints on it."25

  10. Erroneous Use of Funds.
    The Los Angeles Unified School District used some of its $8 million SDFS grant in 1997 to purchase a new car, four guns, ammunition, and an ultrasonic firearms cleaner at the request of a detective who rarely, it turns out, set foot on school grounds. After questions were raised by the media about these purchases, district officials decided to return the money.26

  11. Questionable Use of SDFS Funds.
    In Richmond, Virginia, a 9th grade student shot and wounded a basketball coach and a teacher's aide just two days before the end of the school year. This occurred after state education officials began publishing and distributing a drug-free party guide in November. The sixth edition of this party guide cost $16,000 and recommends activities such as Jell-O wrestling and pageants "where guys dress up in women's wear." The guide even specifies that the "Jell-O should be lemon flavored...red flavors stain everything."27

  12. Misallocation of Funds.
    A 1994 audit of the Michigan SDFS program28 found that federal drug education and prevention funds were used to underwrite purchases of:
  • Large teeth ($64,500);
  • Giant toothbrushes ($17,400);
  • A human torso model ($1.5 million);
  • Wooden cars with Ping-Pong balls ($12,300);
  • Pushbutton play telephones ($6,000);
  • Copies of the Hokey Pokey song ($18,500);
  • Ping-Pong balls ($2,000);
  • Dog bone kits ($3,700);
  • Eye and ear models and videos ($500,000);
  • Bicycle pumps ($11,000); and
  • "How we feel about sound" aids ($300,000).
  1. Federal Colonization of State and Local Education Agencies.
    Many state departments of education draw most of their operating dollars from federal sources. (See Table 1.) State agency dependency on federal funds is a direct result of the U.S. Office of Education's effort in the late 1960s and early 1970s to ensure that programs were implemented by a state-level workforce dedicated to the program's specific services. The unintended result was that the Department virtually colonized state departments of education.29

  1. Ignoring what works.
    Reliable research demonstrating the effectiveness of programs and teaching methods is relatively scarce. One example of this type of research is Project Follow-Through, conducted from 1976 to 1995 and involving more than 70,000 students in over 80 schools at a cost of $1 billion. It found that the teaching method that achieved the greatest positive impact on improving basic reading and computation abilities, problem-solving skills, and self-esteem was "Direct Instruction." But this finding contradicted the rhetoric of many progressive educators who promote less structured, non-direct styles of education. Ignoring these findings, the National Institute of Education (part of the U.S. Department of Education) reported:

The audience for Follow-Through evaluations is an audience of teachers. This audience does not need the statistical findings of experiments when deciding how best to educate children. They decide such matters on the basis of complicated public and private understandings, beliefs, motives and wishes.30

  1. Wasted Waivers.
    A major congressional reform in the 1994 reauthorization of ESEA is a provision called Ed-Flex,31 which allows state and district participants to request waivers from certain federal regulations, such as those in Title I. These waivers offer one more mechanism to ensure that states and districts can target their educational resources to address specific needs at the local level. However, the U.S. Department of Education appears to have overlooked the obvious need to inform recipients of this mechanism and assist them in using it. The Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, in a report commissioned by the federal Department of Education, found that 75 percent of districts surveyed in 1997 had neither requested a waiver nor planned to do so;32 nearly 12 percent reported they had never heard of the waiver provision; and only 6 percent reported requesting a waiver. According to a September 1998 U.S. General Accounting Office report, Ed-Flex's narrowly structured waivers "generally do not address school districts' major concerns."33 The report concludes that "federal flexibility efforts neither reduce districts' financial obligations nor provide additional federal dollars" and that, because the flexibility is limited to specific programs, the districts' "ability to reduce administrative effort and streamline procedures is also limited."34

  2. Funding by Formula.
    Federal programs are not tailored to the contours of charter schools. First, the money does not follow the child to specific schools; it is distributed by formula based on district demographics. Second, charter schools must obtain federal categorical funds through state education agencies and, in many cases, also through their local school districts, which are concerned primarily with the standard public schools in their jurisdictions. Third, charter schools are not likely to have dedicated federal program specialists on staff to fill out the forms, study the regulations, and interact with the state and district bureaus.35

  3. Dollars for Bureaucrats, not Students.
    According to Michael Antonucci, Director of the Education Intelligence Agency,36 teachers comprise an average of only 52.1 percent of California's entire education staff; another 15.2 percent are instructional aides, guidance counselors, librarians, and administrators. The remaining 32.6 percent of the education workforce includes non-teaching staff in district, county, and state offices. Many such employees are hired by states to administer state programs, but many others administer federal programs.37

  4. Federal Dollars Burdening States.
    The Senate Budget Committee Task Force on Education heard testimony on January 28, 1998, from Frank Brogan, Florida's Commissioner of Education, who pointed out that Florida needs 297 state employees to oversee and administer the $1 billion it receives in federal funds. In contrast, only 374 employees are needed to oversee $7 billion in state funds. Therefore, Florida needs six times as many people to administer a federal dollar as it does to administer a state dollar.38

  5. Promoting Bureaucracy.
    Ohio calculated in 1990 that over 50 percent of its paperwork burden was related to federal education programs even though only 5 percent of its education revenues came from federal sources.39

  6. Supplement or Supplant?
    In Arizona, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan estimates that 45 percent of the staff in the state education department is responsible for working with or managing federal programs that account for only 6 percent of education spending.40


As these examples convey, ESEA not only interferes with state and local affairs, but in some instances feeds programs and goals that have little to do with education. It is time to reform ESEA to focus on boosting academic achievement for disadvantaged students. The best way to achieve this goal is through the reforms in the Straight A's Act. Otherwise, no matter how many more regulations and mandates Washington places on ESEA, the program still will not help local educators to react swiftly and efficiently to their schools' day-to-day needs.

The reforms in the Straight A's Act will provide states and localities with the fiscal and legal autonomy to implement the methods they decide will best address their needs, in exchange for proven academic improvement.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former Senior Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

1. The author thanks Carlene Wilson, Visiting Research Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 1998, and Adam Condo, Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation, for assistance with this study.

2. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States, March 1999.

3. Lisa Graham Keegan, "Arizona: Back Off, Washington," in Marci Kanstoroom and Chester E. Finn, Jr., eds., New Directions, Federal Education Policy in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, March 1999.

4. Representative William Goodling and Senator Slade Gorton introduced the Academic Achievement for All Act, or "Straight A's," on June 22, 1999.

5. Lyndon B. Johnson, "Remarks in Johnson City, Texas, Upon Signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Bill," April 11, 1965, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Book I (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965), p. 413.

6. See Stanley Pogrow, "Reforming Title I So That It Is Highly Effective," in Kanstoroom and Finn, New Directions.

7. See "Quality Counts '99," Education Week, January 1999.

8. Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael J. Petrilli, "Education Ratings Employ Rank Double Standards," The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 1999.

9. Wayne Riddle, "Title I, Education for the Disadvantaged: Perspectives on Studies of Its Achievement Effects," Congressional Research Service Report for Congress No. 96-82 EPW, January 5, 1996.

10. Launor F. Carter, "The Sustaining Effects Study of Compensatory and Elementary Education," Educational Researcher, Vol. 13, No. 7 (August/September 1984).

11. U.S. Department of Education, Planning and Evaluation Service, Prospects: The Congressionally Mandated Study of Educational Growth and Opportunity, Interim Report, July 1993.

12. Riddle, "Title I, Education for the Disadvantaged: Perspectives on Studies of Its Achievement Effects."

13. See Prospects for Reform: The State of American Education and the Federal Role, An Interim Report of the Senate Budget Committee Task Force on Education, 105th Cong., March 30, 1998.

14. See Paul H. Carmichael, "Who Receives Federal Title I Assistance? Examination of Program Funding by School Poverty Rate in New York State," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 354-359.

15. Martin Orland and Stephanie Stullich, "Financing Title I: Meeting the Twin Goals of Effective Resource Targeting and Beneficial Program Interventions," Implementing School Reform: Practice and Policy Imperatives, Office of Compensatory Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, and Temple University Center for Research in Human Development and Education, 1997.

16. See Status of Education Reform in Public Elementary Schools: Principals' Perspectives, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, and National Center for Education Statistics, May 1998.

17. U.S. Department of Education, Title I Services for Private School Students Under the 1994 Reauthorization of ESEA: A Snapshot of Federal Assistance in Transition, 1997.

18. Ralph Frammolino, "Title I's $118 Billion Fails to Close Gap," The Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1999.

19. Ibid.

20. U.S. Department of Education, "Overcoming Barriers to Family Involvement in Title I Schools," Report to Congress,
February 1997.

21. U.S. Department of Education, A National Study of Charter Schools, July 1998.

22. Chester E. Finn, Jr., Bruno Manno, Louann A. Bierlein, and Gregg Vanourek, The Policy Perils of Charter Schools, Hudson Institute, July 1997, Final Report, Part III.

23. Ibid.

24. Ralph Frammolino, "Failing Grade for Safe Schools Plan," The Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1998.

25. Ibid..

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Michigan Department of Education's Management of Federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Funds, Michigan State Senate Family Law, Mental Health and Corrections Committee, December 29, 1994.

29. U.S. Department of Education, Planning and Evaluation Service, The Use of Federal Administrative Funds for Administrative Costs, 1998.

30. See U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Education and the Workforce, Education at the Crossroads, July 1998.

31. First enacted in 1994, the Education Flexibility Act (H.R. 800), or "Ed-Flex," was expanded on April 27, 1999, and signed by the President into law two days later.

32. See Reports on Reform from the Field: District and State Survey Results Final Report, The Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Department of Education, 1997.

33. U.S. General Accounting Office, Elementary and Secondary Education: Flexibility Initiatives Do Not Address Districts' Key Concerns About Federal Requirements, GAO/HEHS-98-232, September 30, 1998, p. 3.

34. Ibid.

35. Finn et al., The Policy Perils of Charter Schools.

36. Education Intelligence Agency, "One Yard Below: Education Statistics from a Different Angle," March 1998, at http://www.calnews.com/Archives/1YB_intro.htm.

37. Ibid.

38. Prospects for Reform: The State of American Education and the Federal Role.

39. Ibid.

40. Keegan, "Arizona: Back Off, Washington."


Nina Rees

Senior Research Fellow