The civil rights movement brought about controversies on busing, language rights, desegregation, and the idea of "equal education". The groundwork for the creation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act first came about with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination and racial segregation against African Americans and women. In 1968 the U.S. Department of Education, formerly the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, issued a statement saying that school officials are responsible for providing equal educational opportunities for all, regardless of one's nationality, race, or color. A 1970 memorandum was then passed, clarifying the responsibilities of school officials. In addition to requiring separate classes to be created for students less than proficient in the English language, communication between students' parents and the school was to be required to be conducted in a language understood by the parents.

President Nixon's proposals
On March 6, 1972, President Richard Nixon clarified the definition of "equal educational opportunity" and also called for the judiciary to create a more uniform set of standards off which to judge future cases related with educational opportunity, prioritize equal education, and create alternatives to busing. He set forth two specific proposals on this day: one to effectively eliminate busing entitled "The Student Transportation Moratorium Act" and another entitled the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

Although the Equal Educational Opportunities Act was not passed at that time, Nixon declared that "this act would require that every State or locality grant equal educational opportunity to every person, regardless of race, color, or national origin". In the 1974 Lau v. Nichols, students unable to speak English fluently were denied additional education, resulting in renewed interest in Nixon's 1972 proposals. This led to the official passage of the act on August 21, 1974.

Legislative history
Congress passed the EEOA as a house bill amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The only legislative history available for reference is from a similar bill passed in 1972. The House Committee on Education and Labor noted that the bill was significant in that it contained the first "illustrative definition of a denial of equal educational opportunity", and that this lent clarity to schools, governmental authorities, and students as to what, precisely, their rights were.