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Examining the Every Student Succeeds Act’s Impact on African American Students’ Mental Health Access

by Larry J. Walker - 2018

African American students from underserved communities throughout the United States are exposed to a variety of traumas, including community and intrafamilial violence. Far too often, members of the school-based staff misinterpret combative student behaviors, which are viewed as acts of defiance. However, the factors that contribute to academic and/or emotional problems are not properly contextualized. Ensuring that students have access to comprehensive mental health services is critical. Historically, school districts have depended heavily on federal resources to address the mental health needs of students from minority and low socioeconomic backgrounds. For this reason, examining the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA’s) new block grant program, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant, is important. Under ESSA, several programs were consolidated or eliminated. The grant funds the Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative, which focuses on mental health, among other issues. This article examines how a shift in federal policy could affect mental health access among African American students from underserved backgrounds.

“We must, by including special school aid funds as part of our education program, improve the quality of teaching, training, and counseling in our hardest hit areas.”— Lyndon B. Johnson, January 8, 1964

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. President Lyndon Johnson signed ESEA during the height of the civil rights movement to address concerns from African American leaders and to quell unrest throughout the county. Johnson’s Great Society programs included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These programs focused on systemic problems that limited African Americans upward mobility. Signing ESEA represented a pivotal moment in our history; the federal government created and funded an education program that would in theory help African Americans overcome Jim Crow. Nevertheless, several years later, policy makers continue to examine how to close the opportunity-to-learn gap between African American and White students (Noguera & Boykin, 2011).

The precursor to ESSA, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, was a bipartisan bill signed by President Bush in response to shifting economic policies and student needs (McZeal-Walters, 2017). Unfortunately, the authors of NCLB were criticized for overreaching, including undermining local control. The testing standards and disaggregation of data based on race and student status (e.g., special education and limited English proficient) overwhelmed some school districts. In response, the Obama administration worked with members of the Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Committee on and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to draft a bill that returned some control to states and minimized federal involvement.

ESSA provided more autonomy for state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs) to meet the needs of subgroups, including African American students. However, concerned stakeholders suggested that the bill moved away from its original intent and could lead to fewer students from underserved communities meeting academic benchmarks. By contrast, some pundits believed that providing SEAs and LEAs with flexibility would empower government officials and education leaders to make decisions that positively affect student performance. For this reason, examining the changes to ESSA is critical considering the possible long-term ramifications. Programs including the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant (SSAEG) could impact African American students’ access to mental health support services.

Ensuring that students from minority and underserved neighborhoods have trained teachers and clinicians who can recognize when students are traumatized and need therapeutic services is important. This is particularly critical for African American students, who are more likely than White students to be exposed to primary and secondary traumas, including witnessing violence and the retelling of dangerous encounters (Albdour & Krouse, 2014). Thus, investigating how SSAEG could increase or decrease access for students can help education leaders appropriate resources to communities with higher rates of violence.

Over the last few years, educators, parents, and researchers have concluded that students exposed to environmental stressors struggle to thrive (Milam, Furr-Holden, & Leaf, 2010). School districts with high rates of community violence, including Baltimore City Public Schools, have sought funding from the federal government to meet the needs of specific communities. After the death of Freddie Gray and the events that followed, the district applied for and received trauma funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The school district developed and implemented a blueprint that seeks to address specific needs in underresourced communities. While the grant procured from the Department of Education will help several schools, the funding highlights the need for trauma- and mental-health-informed policies for communities similar to Baltimore City.

More than 50 years after ESEA was signed to close disparities, the nation struggles to prevent some African American students’ exposure to violence. Basch (2011) found that Black students exposed to stressors inside and outside of school settings are more likely to exhibit maladaptive behaviors. Consequently, district and school leaders have to carefully develop policies and procedures that ensure students in need of mental health counseling receive immediate support (Walker & Goings, 2017a). Ensuring that federal policies align with state and local needs is imperative in a global economy. The United States cannot remain competitive if the needs of its most vulnerable populations are not being addressed. African American students from underserved backgrounds, in particular, require student-centered services because of systemic issues that create long-term barriers. As a result, examining SSAEG will inform state and local leaders’ decisions as they develop programs that address the academic and socioemotional needs of students. For this reason, this article explores the following questions: (1) What are the benefits and challenges to utilizing a block grant program to meet African American student needs? and (2) How will the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant impact African American students’ access to mental health support?


The current political environment makes it difficult to pass major pieces of legislation. For more than a decade, Congress struggled to reauthorize NCLB because policy makers could not reach consensus on key issues, including school accountability. While President Bush hailed NCLB as a bipartisan, bicameral effort, the bill faced tremendous resistance after it was signed. Some SEAs and LEAs complained that the testing guidelines were too restrictive, lacked flexibility, and reflected concerns that states’ rights were being ignored (Darrow, 2016). However, during the signing ceremony, President Bush was explicit that NCLB would challenge schools to meet the needs of the nation’s most vulnerable students (Strauss, 2015):

No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance. No longer is it acceptable to keep results away from parents. One of the interesting things about this bill, it says that we’re never going to give up on a school that’s performing poorly; that when we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems. A school will be given time to try other methodologies, perhaps other leadership, to make sure that people can succeed. If, however, schools don’t perform, if, however, given the new resources, focused resources, they are unable to solve the problem of not educating their children, there must be real consequences. (p. 4)

In retrospect, President Bush and President Johnson both supported ambitious education plans because of concerns that students from predominantly minority and underserved communities needed additional support. Bush and Johnson inferred that the nation was at a crossroads, and students needed the skills to compete in a changing world.

Since the passage of ESEA in 1965, it has undergone several iterations aimed at correcting historical inequities between African American and White students. While the bills’ focus on various areas has evolved, the original intent of the bill is still anchored by Johnson’s vision. President Johnson understood that the ongoing civil discord was not sustainable. In direct response, his War on Poverty sought to address years of de jure and de facto segregation. According to Haller, Hunt, Pacha, and Fazekas (2016), “the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was developed to promote civil rights through legislation aimed at ensuring that the federal government provided funding to states to ensure every student had access to a quality education” (p. 1). Politically, Johnson understood that the federal government had to become more involved in state and local issues. Efforts to maintain a caste system by segregationists, including Alabama’s Eugene “Bull” Conner, were not forgotten by the African American community. In hindsight, the events of the 1960s precipitated a response from the federal government that would reverberate for several years. Unfortunately, federal intervention, particularly in the South, would continue to be a contentious issue.

The federal government’s involvement in jurisdictional issues would cause a backlash. Henig, Hula, Orr, and Pedescleaux (1999) posited, “The nature of the relationship between school desegregation and white flight into the suburbs and private schools has been the focus of considerable controversy. Some analysts have argued that mandatory school desegregation efforts played an important role in accelerating the process of white flight” (p. 45). White parents resented what they perceived as a heavy-handed approach to resolving racial issues in public education. That anger simmered for years as locales fought the federal government to maintain their independence. NCLB reignited that fight because of the student accountability provisions.

Before the passage of NCLB, members of Congress and their staffs debated whether there was not enough, or too much, federal intervention in public education. During deliberations, this issue was at the center of the discussion between Democrats and Republicans from both chambers. I vividly remember these discussions because of my time working on Capitol Hill. Throughout the committee and conference process, I was one of many staffers who worked on NCLB. During that time, I served as the legislative director for Congressman Major R. Owens, a senior Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce. My duties and responsibilities included overseeing education issues. The discussions were at times contentious despite support from the Bush administration.

Collectively, members worked to develop a fair compromise that would ease growing concerns regarding federal involvement in local issues. However, key Democrats, including Congressman Owens, saw the government’s involvement in public education as vital. A civil rights advocate, he believed that the federal government had a responsibility to monitor states’ activities. The fight among members to write a bill with strong accountability measures while protecting states’ rights foreshadowed a difficult period post-NCLB. After NCLB’s passage, the fight over public education shifted to two sides: government oversight versus local control. The concerns from some federal, state, and local officials regarding NCLB echoed the fight to pass components of Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s (Browne-Marshall, 2013).

Years later, ESSA’s passage reflected the battle from local officials to reclaim governance over public education (Graue, Wilinski, & Nocera, 2016). Concerns over NCLB’s perceived stringent testing and data collection requirements led SEAs to rally to change the law. States fought to reclaim their independence by lobbying the House, Senate, and Obama administration to relinquish some control. Aragon, Griffith, Wixom, Woods, and Workman (2016) asserted, “The new law maintains many of the same basic components as past iterations, such as state plans and report cards, but the bipartisan bill also responds to many of the common complaints about NCLB by offering states greater flexibility and control over education policy” (p. 1). Some of the changes were minimal; however, concerns from stakeholders were addressed by providing more flexibility to appease disenchanted policy makers and education leaders. Table 1 outlines some of the differences and similarities between ESSA and NCLB.

Table 1. No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act Comparison




Greater flexibility, including

States must adhere to strict

utilizing nonacademic measures.


Title I

Provides flexibility for

No flexibility for school

small school districts.



Students in Grades 3–8

Students in Grades 3–8

and 11 are tested in reading

and 11 are tested in

and math.

reading and math.


Support for block grants is a mostly partisan issue. It represents a political fault line with Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. The ideological divide is rooted within two belief systems: (a) states should have the flexibility to spend federal dollars (Republicans), or (b) the federal government should have oversight on how funds are spent (Democrats). The fight for states’ rights, particularly as it relates to education, was a common occurrence throughout United States history (Urban & Wagoner, 2008). Historically, the nation has struggled to resolve what it means to be a democratic society that purposefully relegated segments of its population to second-class status. This is particularly evident as it relates to public education, including the fight between the government, civil rights groups, and the courts. Walker and Goings (2017) determined,

Throughout the 20th century public schools experienced considerable political and social change, including the influx of immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe, the rise of teacher unions, and successful Court challenges including Brown v. Board of Education. Collectively these events dramatically altered the ethnic and racial composition of the American public school system. (p. 4)

The quote highlights the problems the nation has encountered at pivotal moments— specifically, how it responds to perceived gains by subgroups (Alexander, 2012). For this reason, it’s important to highlight that block grants became a staple for the federal government at the end of the civil rights movement. This is not to suggest that block grants are not a critical tool or designed to prevent progress from other groups, but it has become an avenue to lowering costs for critical social programs.

A Democrat-controlled Congress enacted the first block grant program in the 1960s. Since then, several programs, including NCLB and ESSA, have funded programs that provide states with flexibility. However, for some advocates, block grants have become synonymous with efforts to lower costs to critical programs. Thus, examining the history of block grants in the federal government is important. According to Finegold, Wherry, and Schardin (2009), “block grants have been part of the American federal system since 1966” (p. 1). The authors continued, “block grants are fixed-sum federal grants to state and local governments to design and implement designated programs” (p. 1). Although most of the public is not familiar with block grants, they have a significant impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

Annually, Congress authorizes programs that address a plethora of issues, including education, health, and housing. One such program is the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). Ensuring that parents have access to inexpensive and safe alternatives for children is paramount. Supporters of block grant programs would argue that the CCDBG allows states to tailor the program to meet the specific needs of the local community. A study suggested, “By giving states more flexibility to structure policies around the needs of children and families the reauthorization also makes it easier to link the child care assistance program to other programs, including other early childhood education programs and additional supports for families” (Matthews, Schulman, Vogtman, Johnson-Staub, & Blank, 2015, p. 1). The authors asserted that CCDBG allows locales to link child care to other important services. In contrast, detractors would contend that the CCDBG will not receive significant increases in federal funding.

Questioning whether block grants should continue to be an essential tool for the federal government is critical. The SSAEG will equip SEAs and LEAs with funding for the Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative. Allocating resources for mental health services is an important component for school districts that serve students from pervasively violent communities (Cappella et al., 2012). Thus, determining if, and to what degree, block granting resources will impact mental health access rates for African Americans students must be considered. Traditionally underserved communities do not have the political capital to counter policies that disproportionately affect their schools. So, federal policy makers should carefully consider if the needs of African American students will be met through the SSAEG.


The SSAEG funds several programs, including the Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative. Issues including mental health are coordinated through the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Healthy Students. School districts can receive funding for school counseling, trauma-informed training, and violence prevention, among other issues. Each area is key to curtailing African American students’ exposure to traumatic experiences. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), trauma includes “actual or threatened death, serious injury” (p. 265). Some researchers have suggested that race-based trauma (in school settings) is also detrimental to African American students’ well-being (Henderson, Walker, Redmond-Barnes, Lunsford, & Edwards, in press; Seaton & Douglass, 2014).

Unfortunately, African American students encounter environmental stressors inside and outside school settings that complicate their experiences (Walker, 2016). This is particularly accurate for males, who navigate stereotypes that suggest they are dangerous and/or do not possess the academic acumen to succeed in school. According to Goings and Walker (2017), “Providing Black males with supportive environments that encourage  self-discovery, set high expectations, and are academically challenging is critical. At an early age, Black males are vulnerable because they have to learn to navigate barriers inside and outside of school settings that can hamper their ability to succeed” (p. 111). Overall, African American students face unique obstacles that can hinder their ability to develop substantive peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher relationships (Lynn, Bacon, Totten, Bridges, & Jennings, 2010). Consequently, having access to comprehensive mental health support is important.

Similar to other federal legislation, several regulations guide SEAs and LEAs receiving funds for the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program. The Council of Chief State School Officers outlined some of the requirements, including

at least 20% of their allocation on activities to support safe and healthy students such as (but not limited to) drug and violence prevention, school-based mental health services, supporting a healthy, active lifestyle, preventing bullying and harassment, mentoring and school counseling, school dropout and reentry programs, and school wide positive behavioral interventions and supports. (p. 12)

The regulations apply to LEAs that are allocated at least $30,000. While the funding will help LEAs provide needed trauma- and mental-health-informed care to students, several questions have to be considered: (1) Will the White House reverse its initial budget requirements that call for significant decreases in spending at the U.S. Department of Education? (2) Will Congress fund the SSAEG at levels that allow SEAs and LEAs to expand programs? (3) What steps are LEAs taking to ensure they fund mental health initiatives for African American students in underserved schools? Each question has significant ramifications for educators, mental health advocates, parents, and students. Without robust federal funding, the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program cannot achieve its goal of changing the trajectory of students’ lives.


African American students from underserved communities encounter economic, education, health, political, and social barriers that hinder their efforts to thrive in schools (Alim et al., 2006). Barriers including the school-to-prison pipeline, lead poisoning, inadequate housing, trauma, and undiagnosed mental health illness are significant problems (Debnam, Bottiani, & Bradshaw, 2017). Researchers have determined that each of these issues correlates to serious long-term problems (Holt, Finkelhor, & Kantor, 2007). Trauma in particular contributes to issues that may or may not surface at an early age.

For students exposed to traumatic experiences during childhood, the consequences are severe. Porche, Fortuna, Lin, and Alegria (2011) conducted a study to examine the relationship between childhood trauma and school dropout rates, and they determined that “childhood exposure to trauma was related to higher risk for school dropout” (p. 991). Factors that hinder some African Americans students’ academic performance and well-being cannot be ignored. A study of 174 inner-city urban high school students determined that more than 90% of the participants experienced some communal violence. According to the authors, “The impact of chronic violence on youth is multifaceted and pervasive, and includes negative ramifications for the health, mental health, and academic achievement of affected youth” (Howard, Budge, & McKay, 2010, p. 64). Communities with limited resources depend heavily or federal assistance to combat problems associated with violence. Ignoring their needs will have implications for the nation.

For this reason, policy makers and educators have to consider how ESSA, specifically, the SSAEG, will impact funding for programs including the Safe Schools/Healthy Students  initiative. Congress must ensure that LEAs have enough funding to train administrators, teachers, and mental health practitioners to meet the needs of African Americans students exposed to a singular or multiple traumatic experiences. Students who have to overcome environmental stressors are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and mental illness and to struggle in school. Peguero (2011) suggested, “A significant amount of research has examined the detrimental consequences of violence and victimization, especially for youth, that range from posttraumatic stress disorder, diminished mental and physical health, educational and socioeconomic failure and engagement in criminality” (p. 3755). The findings suggest that federal policies must align with the needs of subgroups, including African American students.

Although policy makers would argue that block grants lower costs and allow SEAs to make real-time decisions, the funding is fixed. Considering the problems some locales are facing, significant long-term investments, including increasing support for programs like SSAEG, should be feasible. Unfortunately, hoping for bipartisan agreement in the current political climate is difficult. Perhaps bipartisan groups, including the Gang of Eight—which consists of Senators Bennet, Durban, Flake, Graham, McCain, Menendez, Rubio, and Schumer—can lead future efforts to support the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.


Over the last several years, the shift in geopolitical issues has a created a more balanced playing field. Countries in Africa, Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia have gained economic power by strengthening their education systems and producing students prepared to compete in the global economy. Statistics reveal that some industrialized nations are better preparing students in key subjects, including math and science. Darling-Hammond (2010) explained, “the United States ranked 21st of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in science, and 25th of 30 in mathematics-a drop in both raw scores and rankings from 3 years earlier” (p. 9). Darling-Hammond continued,

International studies continue to confirm that the U.S. educational system is also one of the most unequal in terms of inputs. In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest school districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states. (p. 12)

If we want to continue to be a world leader, the nation has to equalize school funding, particularly in minority and underserved schools.

The growth in emerging technologies will determine which nations will dominate over the next century. Investing in the African American community is the key. Despite historical inequities, institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), have tried to increase the number of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), among other specialties (Walker & Goings, 2017b). However, African American students in PreK–12 settings from underserved communities will need access to comprehensive mental health and academic programs to succeed in college.

The nation faces a conundrum. Public schools serve predominantly majority-minority students from underresourced neighborhoods but struggle to fund student-centered programs. This is important because the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that over the next 50 years, the country’s demographics will shift and become less White (Colby & Ortman, 2014). Despite the change, African American students still trail White students in important indicators. Reversing this trend will require significant state and federal resources that recognize how race, education, and economic prosperity intersect.

It is hoped that the current disparities between African American and White students do not portend a future where the status quo remains. For this reason, policy makers will have to consider committing additional resources through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students initiative. Students cannot thrive if schools do not have comprehensive systems in place that identify students in need of mental health services. There are several policy changes that could mediate the ecosystemic barriers African American students encounter on a daily basis.


The Every Student Succeeds Act’s Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant represents a change from the No Child Left Behind Act. Congress created the new block grant program under Title IV, Part A, which addresses a several issues, including mental health. Considering that block grant funding is fixed, perhaps policy makers should consider moving the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program under a different title that aligns with school needs. This is particularly important considering the White House proposed deep cuts in Title IV and Title II funding. The hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed cuts to the SSAEG would hamper efforts by members of school-based staff to combat environmental stressors that negatively impact students’ academic performance and socioemotional functioning.

Eliminating provisions from the SSAEG could be catastrophic for segments of the African American community. Schools would not be properly equipped to offer training for members of school-based staff, including mental health clinicians. Moreover, previously undiagnosed students could become disruptive and engage in dangerous behaviors, including illicit drug abuse and criminality, and drop out of school (Patton, Woolley, & Hong, 2012). The long-term ramifications would be severe for a community that has to overcome systemic issues. It is hoped that policy makers will maintain programs including Title IV, which should include funding for the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.


The country is at a crossroads. Federal departments, including the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (2016), may have to overcome changes, including a decrease in funding for proven programs. Potentially, SEAs and LEAs throughout the nation could struggle to maintain or increase data-driven programs aimed at African American and other minority populations. Increasingly, locales have turned to the federal government to invest in initiatives that provide money for trauma and mental health programs. Unfortunately, it appears that states should expect to seek support from corporations, foundations, and other nonprofit organizations.

Collectively, the United States faces a dilemma. Will the nation shift its attention to our most needy populations, or resort to reigniting ethnic, racial, and religious tensions that impede our ability to succeed? President Johnson’s Great Society programs prove that the country is capable of addressing historical inequities. However, that will require investing in human capital. Fortunately, the down payment will reap benefits for an increasingly diverse society.

African Americans from underserved communities would benefit from increased funding for the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program. Decreasing funding or eliminating the program would have serious consequences for our most vulnerable subgroups. For this reason, the federal government must adhere to egalitarian principles that provide opportunities for every American; refusing could initiate a downward spiral that hurts the nation’s economic prosperity.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 13, 2018, p. 1-16
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22349, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 8:47:37 PM

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  • Larry Walker
    Independent Researcher
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    LARRY J. WALKER is an independent researcher and former Congressional Fellow, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and served as the legislative director for Congressman Major R. Owens. Dr. Walker’s research includes teacher education, policy, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and mental health. Dr. Walker has authored/coauthored several publications, including, "A Dream Deferred: How Trauma Impacts the Academic Achievement of African-American Youth; Why Are We All Here? Reflections of an African-American Male"; and "Disrupting the Myth of Black Male Inferiority". In addition, he coedited a book titled, Graduate Education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Student Perspective.
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