The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA)—the eighth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA)—is the major federal law authorizing federal spending on programs to support PreK-12 schooling. ESSA is the largest source of federal spending on elementary and secondary education.


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted in 1965 as part of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty campaign. Since its initial passage in 1965, ESEA has been reauthorized eight times. The law was designed to improve educational equity for students from lower income families by providing federal funds to school districts serving poor students. These districts often receive less state and local funding than those serving more affluent children. While each reauthorization has brought changes to the program, this central goal has remained constant.

One of the primary shifts in the legislation was a greater focus holding states and school districts accountable for student outcomes. The 1994 reauthorization, the Improving America’s Schools Act, put in place the key elements of standards accountability for those states and local school districts that receive funding under the law. These accountability provisions were developed further under the law’s seventh reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).

Prior to NCLB, the federal government regularly reauthorized the legislation on average every 5 years. But after 2002, it took Congress well over a decade to reauthorize the legislation. This delay resulted in the U.S. Department of Education’s unprecedented action to provide states with waivers on the accountability requirements laid out in NCLB—it was known as ESEA Flexibility. This flexibility, however, came with a number of additional policy requirements for states.

In December of 2015, nearly fourteen years after NCLB was signed into law, Congress came together to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This new legislation has shifted many decisions around how to hold school districts accountable for student outcomes back to states. Regulations for the new legislation are currently being written by the Department, and full implementation of the new law will not occur until the 2017-18 school year.


The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was the previous reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.