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Elementary and Secondary Education Policy, Post-1945

Summary and Keywords

Americans almost universally agree on the importance of education to the success of individuals and the strength of the nation. Yet they have long differed over the proper mission of government in overseeing their schools. Before 1945, these debates largely occurred at the local and state levels. Since 1945, as education has become an increasingly national and international concern, the federal government has played a larger role in the nation’s schools. As Americans gradually have come to accept a greater federal presence in elementary and secondary schools, however, members of Congress and presidents from both major parties have continued to argue over the scope and substance of the federal role. From 1945 to 1965, these arguments centered on the quest for equity between rich and poor public school pupils and between public and nonpublic school students. From 1965 to 1989, national lawmakers devoted much of their attention to the goal of excellence in public education. From 1989 to the present, they have quarreled over how best to attain equity and excellence at the same time.

Keywords: Brown v. Board of Education, Common Core, Department of Education, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Lemon v. Kurtzman, National Commission on Excellence in Education, National Defense Education Act, No Child Left Behind Act, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

The first American government to address education was the Congress of the Confederation, when it enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785. The law divided public lands in the northwestern United States into townships comprising thirty-six sections of 640 acres each, with the revenue from the sale of section sixteen of each township to be designated for public education. Two years later, the Northwest Ordinance established a government for the territory north of the Ohio River, where “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The United States Constitution, ratified in 1789, did not mention education at all. Article I, Section 8 assigned to Congress the authority “to provide for . . . the . . . General Welfare of the United States.” But the Tenth Amendment, ratified in 1791, left for “the States . . . , or . . . the people” those “powers not delegated” to the federal government. State and local governments, therefore, would assume the primary responsibility for educating American children to prepare them for citizenship in a democratic society, inculcate in them a sense of morality and respect for the law, assimilate those from immigrant families into the mainstream, and facilitate the country’s gradual transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy.1

There were a few exceptions to this pattern of state and local control of education. In 1802, the federal government tailored the Northwest Ordinance’s policy to the region’s new states, where it provided land for common schools. The first national statistics on education and illiteracy were parts of the census of 1840. In 1867, President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating a federal Department of Education to collect and disseminate such data. Within two years, however, the department lost its Cabinet status, becoming the Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior.

As in other areas, President Franklin Roosevelt expanded the federal presence in education. New Deal agencies funded vocational training and school construction. In 1937, Roosevelt’s Advisory Commission on Federal Aid to Education prescribed temporary federal aid to children in public and, in some cases, nonpublic schools. The Lanham Act of 1941 authorized federal assistance for “school buildings, school services, and nursery schools for children of mothers who were involved in defense industries.” In 1944, Roosevelt included a “good education” in his “Economic Bill of Rights,” and the American Catholic bishops reversed their longstanding opposition to federal aid for their parish schools. By the end of World War II in 1945, however, elementary and secondary schools overwhelmingly remained the responsibility of state and local governments.2

The Quest for Equity, 1945–1965

The economic boom that followed the Second World War accelerated the momentum for a larger federal role in the nation’s schools. The country’s newfound prosperity not only facilitated greater federal funding, it also undergirded a new rationale for such assistance, that all children should share in this abundance. Thus did the leading public school teachers’ organizations, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), lobby for equity between rich and poor public school pupils, while the bishops’ National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) pressed for equity between public and nonpublic school students.

In his budget message to Congress in 1947, Democratic President Harry Truman called upon Congress to enact “basic legislation under which the Federal Government will supplement the resources of the States to assist them to equalize educational opportunities.” Legislation sponsored by Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and Democratic Senators Elbert Thomas of Utah and Lister Hill of Alabama sought to achieve the president’s objective. Their bill proposed annual expenditures of $40 per student and left the distribution of these federal funds to the states. The states could earmark some of the aid to nonpublic schools. The measure passed the Senate but died in the House Education and Labor Committee because of resistance to federal control of education and aid to religious schools.

The Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision added a new obstacle to federal aid. By outlawing racial segregation in public schools, the decision energized the civil rights movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had successfully represented plaintiff Oliver Brown, reversed its traditional resistance to federal aid to education. Yet the following year, by authorizing public school desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” the Court unwittingly unleashed a decade of violent resistance throughout the southern United States. As the American people took sides on the Brown verdicts, so too did their representatives in Washington. In his special message on education in 1955, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower proposed a three-year public school construction bill. Republican Senator H. Alexander Smith of New Jersey, Democratic Senator Lister Hill of Alabama, and Democratic Representative Augustine Kelley of Pennsylvania extended the Eisenhower proposal to six years, and, for the first time since World War II, the House debated an education bill.

During the House debate in 1956, African-American New York Democratic Congressman Adam Clayton Powell introduced an amendment supported by the NAACP that would restrict federal funds to those states that honored the first Brown decision. The Powell Amendment passed, but the federal aid bill failed. The following year, Eisenhower reluctantly dispatched federal troops to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.3

Elementary and Secondary Education Policy, Post-1945Click to view larger

Figure 1. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort a group of nine African American students, called the Little Rock Nine, into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce integration. Courtesy of the National Archives.

While the country’s new civil rights climate was complicating the federal aid picture, the Cold War was simplifying it. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, citizens’ groups throughout the country engaged in an “us versus them” campaign at the local and state levels to rid the public schools of “subversive” textbooks and curricula. In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched its satellite, Sputnik I, taking the lead in the space race with the United States and alarming federal lawmakers. The result was the overwhelming passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, which linked research and development funds for colleges and universities to monies for mathematics, science, and foreign language instruction in public and nonpublic elementary and secondary schools. The following year James Conant published American High School Today, which called for a reform of the comprehensive high school to meet the economic and military challenges posed by the Soviet Union.4

By 1960, as post-World War II “baby boomers” entered high school in record numbers, education was, for the first time, a major issue in a presidential campaign, with both major candidates and their party platforms advocating federal aid. While the enactment of the NDEA showed that Congress could pass specialized categorical aid, general aid for school construction and/or teachers’ salaries remained elusive. In 1960, after the Senate passed legislation, sponsored by Michigan Democratic Senator Pat McNamara, that financed public school construction and teachers’ salaries, the House passed a bill, sponsored by New Jersey Democratic Representative Frank Thompson, that authorized public school construction and included a Powell Amendment. But a 7-5 House Rules Committee vote prevented reconciliation of the two bills.

At the dawn of the new decade, federal school aid advocates were bemoaning the “three R’s.” Although polls showed a comfortable majority of Americans in favor of a greater federal presence in education, “religion, race, and rules” in the House of Representatives seemed to be conspiring to thwart the will of the people.

President John Kennedy thus appeared to be tempting fate in his 1961 education initiative. The Northern Democrat in the White House antagonized the states’ rights Republicans and Southern Democrats on the House Rules Committee by attaching permanent federal support of teachers’ salaries to his plan for temporary aid for school construction. The candidate who had supported civil rights became the president who refused to endorse the Powell Amendment. And the first Catholic president, who owed his narrow election in large part to the overwhelming support of his fellow congregants, defied the hierarchy of his church by excluding federal aid to nonpublic schools.

Kennedy surmounted the obstacle of race by extracting a pledge from Congressman Powell not to add his amendment to the president’s proposal in return for the administration’s promise of fair employment practices in the implementation of federal programs. Kennedy overcame the barrier of religion by agreeing to the Catholic bishops’ offer to tether Kennedy’s public school bill to an expansion of the NDEA, which included nonpublic school loans. When the Kennedy bill passed the Senate without the NDEA revision, the president and the bishops reached a second agreement, by which the expanded NDEA would arrive on the Senate floor on its own. But it never got there. Both houses passed, and Kennedy signed, an un-amended extension of the NDEA.

While Kennedy’s public school bill successfully skirted race and religion in the Senate, it could not avoid rules and religion in the House. When Catholic Democrat James Delaney of New York ensured an 8-7 defeat for the Kennedy legislation in the House Rules Committee in July 1961, he attributed his decision to the bill’s omission of nonpublic schools.

The next month, Kennedy tried to circumvent the Rules Committee. Rather than send Kennedy’s school bill through the committee, Democratic Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas announced that he would proclaim “Calendar Wednesday,” a parliamentary maneuver by which the House must debate and vote on legislation all in one day. To attract enough Republicans and Southern Democrats to pass the measure, Kennedy offered temporary aid for school construction but omitted permanent support of teachers’ salaries. Despite these precautions, the House rejected the motion to consider the Kennedy bill under the Calendar Wednesday procedure by a 242-170 margin.

None of the three R’s could explain Kennedy’s defeat. This time, partisanship had done in the president. Offended by the Democratic majority’s parliamentary ploy, all but six Republicans voted not to consider the Kennedy bill.5

Among the unfinished business that Lyndon Johnson inherited from Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was the enactment of federal aid to education. Johnson, a former high school teacher, was determined that neither race, religion, nor rules would prevent the fulfillment of his goal and that partisanship would become an asset rather than a liability.

Johnson succeeded on all these fronts. The president’s signature on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in the implementation of any federal program and which authorized the federal government to withhold funds should such bias occur, codified the Powell Amendment into federal law. Negotiations between Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel, NEA president Robert Wyatt, and National Catholic Welfare Conference representatives William Consedine and Monsignor Francis Hurley, begun during the waning days of the Kennedy Administration, resulted in a church-state compromise by which Johnson would abandon general aid in favor of categorical aid to children in nonpublic as well as public schools. The adoption by Congress in January 1965 of the twenty-one-day rule, permitting the Speaker of the House to move a bill to the floor if it had not received a rule within twenty-one days, eliminated the House Rules Committee as a roadblock to school aid.

Although Johnson had exorcised the demons of race, religion, and rules that had haunted Truman and Eisenhower, there remained the issue of partisanship, which had undermined Kennedy. Yet rather than attack it, Johnson embraced it—because he could. Johnson’s landslide victory over Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election had ushered in the largest legislative majority in the postwar era. With a 295–140 Democratic margin in the House and a 62–38 advantage in the Senate, Johnson, unlike Kennedy, did not need many Republican votes to pass federal aid to education. Over the vociferous objections of the minority party, Johnson, a former Senate Majority Leader, ordered the rapid consideration of his legislation in the House and Senate education subcommittees.

Even though he did not need most Republicans and treated them accordingly, Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) passed the House in March 1965, not only with the votes of 232 Democrats, including those of all fifty-eight non-Southern freshmen, but also with thirty-five, or 25 percent, of the Republicans. The bill sailed through the Senate in April with the backing of fifty-five Democrats and eighteen, or 47 percent, of Republicans. On April 9, 1965, alongside his third-grade teacher, in the one-room schoolhouse he had once attended, the president signed the long-awaited legislation. Johnson’s adroit packaging of permanent general support of education as categorical “aid to the child” based on a poverty formula attracted the moderate and liberal Republicans whom Kennedy had alienated.

Title I of the ESEA provided $1.06 billion to be distributed by state education officials to assist local school district projects directed at “educationally-deprived children.” The funds were not to finance either construction or teachers’ salaries but could pay for “shared-time” programs by which nonpublic school students could attend classes at public schools. Title II assigned $100 million for the purchase of textbooks and other materials and for the expansion of school libraries for nonpublic and public school children through public agencies. Title III allocated $100 million for “supplemental services and centers” open to children in nonpublic as well as public schools. Title IV earmarked $100 million to modernize and coordinate educational research, and Title V authorized $100 million to improve state education agencies. Three years later, spurred by the demographic changes wrought by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Johnson attached a new title to the law to fund bilingual education.

Although the ESEA would reach 90 percent of the nation’s school districts, and although such wealthy regions as Westchester County, New York, and Marin County, California, received at least twice as many funds as impoverished areas in Alabama and Mississippi, Johnson effectively portrayed the law as a potent weapon in his “War on Poverty.” Though nonpublic schools would underutilize the funds provided in the statute due to entrenched resistance by public school officials, hostile interpretations of state constitutions by judges and attorneys generals, and political missteps by the nonpublic schools themselves, pundits and politicians hailed the ESEA’s reconciliation of church and state. Thus did the two-decade-old national quest for equity between rich and poor public school pupils and public and nonpublic school students attain its legislative apogee.6

The Quest for Excellence, 1965–1989

Almost as soon as President Johnson had signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, observers inside and outside of his administration began to scrutinize it. White House aide Douglass Cater unsuccessfully urged Johnson to follow up his July 1965 White House Conference on Education with regional conferences to “wake up the regions . . . to their responsibilities in achieving excellence in education.” Johnson’s Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel recommended national student testing to determine how well the schools funded by the ESEA were teaching. In Equality of Educational Opportunity in 1966, sociologist James Coleman lamented the lack of progress during the ESEA’s first year, asserting that that the social class of the students was a greater predictor of educational achievement than the price tag of federally funded facilities.

Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter entered their presidencies determined to promote excellence in education. In his “Special Message to Congress on Education Reform” in March 1970, his “Special Message to Congress on Special Revenue Sharing for Education” in April 1971, and his State of the Union Address in January 1972, Nixon claimed that federal school aid had failed the poor; he advocated a cost-benefit analysis of federal education funds and called for a reform of federal education policies. As part of his electoral outreach to ethnic Catholic Democrats, Nixon endorsed nonpublic school aid, even after the Supreme Court’s 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman and Early v. Dicenso verdicts held that Pennsylvania and Rhode Island laws permitting public assistance for nonpublic school teachers’ salaries were violations of the First Amendment’s proscription of the establishment of religion. As part of his “southern strategy,” designed to convert white Southern Democrats into Republicans, Nixon denounced the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, which ordered the busing of public school pupils between white suburban and black inner-city schools to reverse the effects of pre-1954 de jure segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Yet a worsening economy and a formidable alliance of the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, and a liberal Democratic Congressional majority still wedded to the ESEA foiled Nixon’s plans. When Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal in August 1974, he had extended the ESEA, had enlarged the federal role in public education, had failed to obtain nonpublic school aid, and not only was enforcing the Swann decision, but had helped ensure that the percentage of African-American students in all-black schools in the South would decline from 68 percent in 1968 to 9 percent in 1972. He also had enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which outlawed gender discrimination in federally funded education programs.

Like Nixon, Gerald Ford introduced a program that targeted the reading deficiencies that Title I of the ESEA was not adequately addressing. Like Nixon, Ford sought additional funding for federal educational research on such initiatives as linking school and work. And like Nixon, Ford opposed court-ordered busing to effect public school desegregation, signing legislation that advocated busing only as a last resort. But like Nixon, Ford unsuccessfully confronted the teachers’ unions and their allies in the Democratic Congress, who wanted more money for, and little change to, the growing federal role in public education and school desegregation, and no new funds for nonpublic schools. The president and Congress collaborated, however, in passing the first large-scale federal aid for disabled students.

As a moderate former governor from the “New South,” Jimmy Carter promised to be a different kind of Democrat than Lyndon Johnson. President Carter called for a cost-benefit analysis of federal education programs, promoted more student testing to discern the efficacy of Title I of the ESEA, and expressed support for the “back-to-basics” education efforts that were alive in many states. But Carter recreated a federal Department of Education as a campaign debt to the NEA, increased federal education spending as a nod to the members of his party who continued to control Capitol Hill, and resisted tuition tax credits for nonpublic school students, which passed the House but fell short in the Senate. When it wasn’t going to court to defend anti-busing legislation, the Carter Administration was going to court to pursue pro-busing litigation.

Unlike Nixon, Ford, and Carter, Republican Ronald Reagan did not plan to reform the federal role in public schools. He intended to eviscerate it. Reagan called for massive cuts in federal public education expenditures, which had approached 9 percent of all school aid under his predecessor. He proposed the abolition of the Department of Education, which was barely two years old when Reagan took office. And he called for an end to court-ordered busing.

In his first year, Reagan struck a deal with Congress, now divided between a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, to reconfigure the ESEA into only two titles, Chapter 1 (Formerly Title I) and Chapter 2 (a consolidation of twenty-eight categorical aid programs). He recommended the replacement of the Department of Education with a dramatically downsized Foundation for Educational Assistance. In Reagan’s second year, the Justice Department for the first time asked a court to restrict an existing busing plan.

But thanks largely to his Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, who arrived in Washington from the University of Utah expecting to work himself out of a job, Reagan would become a reluctant reformer. After Republicans as well as Democrats had spoiled his boss’s plan to dismantle his department, Bell set out to justify its existence. He formed an eighteen-member commission, representing government, business, and education and chaired by University of Utah president David Gardner, to “do whatever is needed to define the problems and barriers to attaining greater levels of excellence in American education.” The report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE), provocatively titled “A Nation at Risk” and released in April 1983, was a resounding repudiation of the ESEA. It cited the drop in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores since 1963, the lowly performance of American students compared to their international counterparts, and alarming statistics on reading deficiencies, absence of academic rigor, and lack of teacher preparation, which were plaguing public primary and secondary schools. The report sounded the alarm that if American education did not substantially improve, the country’s position in an increasingly global economy would continue to suffer.

Reagan initially mischaracterized the NCEE report as a clarion call for nonpublic school tuition tax credit legislation, which would die in the Senate But when the press, the public, the NEA, the AFT, and many members of both parties embraced the NCEE blueprint, so too did the president. In the over fifty speeches on education that he delivered in the eighteen months after the issuance of A Nation at Risk, Reagan extolled the commission’s prescriptions for a basic public school curriculum, more homework, and a national student examination. In 1988, the federal government for the first time required annual tests for students receiving ESEA Chapter 1 money. Although over 600 school districts remained under federal court order at the end of the Reagan Administration, a majority of blacks as well as whites were rejecting busing as a vehicle to achieve educational parity. “Excellence” had supplanted “equity” as the leading objective of federal education policy.7

The Quest for Equity and Excellence, 1989–

Reagan’s successors—Republican George H. W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton, Republican George W. Bush, and Democrat Barack Obama—continued this trend. But they also returned to the pursuit of equity. The elder Bush’s Educational Excellence Act of 1989 promoted “merit” schools, “magnet” schools, and a federal assessment of education. The assessment began at the first-ever Education Summit, a meeting of the president and the nation’s governors in September 1989. The summit, held outside of Washington in Charlottesville, Virginia, to emphasize state and local control of education, nonetheless produced the first set of national education goals. The general themes of the summit became more specific in Bush’s State of the Union address in January 1990: “By the year 2000, every child must start school ready to learn; the United States must increase the high school graduation rate to no less than 90 percent; at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades, we must assess our students’ performance; by the year 2000, U.S. students must be first in the world in math and science achievement; every American adult must be a skilled, literate worker and citizen; [and] every school must offer (a) disciplined environment and . . . must be drug-free.”

Equity was also on the mind of the president. But the means of achieving this goal were clearly changing. In 1991, the Supreme Court, whose majority were appointees of Republican presidents, sided with the Bush Administration in Oklahoma City v. Dowell in striking down an Oklahoma City busing scheme after all “practicable” steps to attain racial balance had occurred. Bush thus advocated the pre-1954 ideal of “neighborhood schools,” not to further racial inequality but to fight it, by funding specialized “magnet” schools in impoverished communities. Bush also resurrected the 1965 poverty formula, which had helped enact the ESEA, once again promoting “aid to the child” to reach nonpublic school students, this time packaged not as a lifesaver for dying urban Catholic schools, but as a civil rights imperative for the African American and Latino majorities who now attended them. Though this shift earned Bush no federal legislation and few minority votes, it would become a recurring theme in his party’s presidential politics.

Bill Clinton turned Bush’s goals into law. In March 1994, Clinton signed Goals 2000, which added two benchmarks to his predecessor’s list: “teachers will have access to training programs to achieve their skills,” and “every school will strive to increase parental involvement in their children’s education.” For the first time, the Secretary of Education could withhold money from states if they did not test their students.

Clinton, who was eleven years old when President Eisenhower sent the Army to desegregate a public high school in his native Arkansas, was a staunch advocate of educational equity as well. In 1995, in Missouri v. Jenkins, the Supreme Court rejected Kansas City’s magnet school plan as a violation of the Court’s 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision outlawing inter-district school desegregation remedies. The federal judiciary was not only repudiating mandatory busing as a step toward equity, but it was now ruling out alternatives to busing as well. Fearing that such decisions were fostering the re-segregation of the nation’s public schools, the Clinton Administration promoted voluntary busing and magnet schools. Clinton successfully demanded more federal money for public education from the first Republican Congress in four decades, even after the collapse of budget talks led to two partial government shutdowns in 1995–1996. Yet like the AFT, the NEA, and most of the members of his party, Clinton dismissed Republican calls for equity for nonpublic school pupils as attacks on public education.8

George W. Bush took Clinton’s Goals 2000 a step further. The latest extension of the ESEA, which passed in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion and which Bush signed in January 2002, called for states to test third through eighth graders annually, in reading and mathematics. Test scores had to improve from year to year, and nearly all students had to be “proficient” (as determined by the states) by 2014. The federal government would administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress test annually to help states evaluate the quality of their tests. If a school did not demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” over four years, it would receive the designation of a “failing” school and be compelled to close, reopening as a charter or independent school with a new staff. The states also had to certify that all of their teachers were “highly qualified” in the subjects they taught.9

To the president, this law was as much about equity as excellence. Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project (now at UCLA) discovered in 2001 that even after three decades of mandatory busing, 70 percent of black children were attending predominantly minority schools, many of which were in high-poverty districts. Decrying the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” Bush labeled his legislation the “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB). The law, for the first time, categorized school populations by class, race, (dis)ability, and national origin. Almost forty years after the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the third president from Texas would be measuring the “achievement gap” which the first president from Texas and all of his successors had failed to close. And Bush would be spending thirteen times as much as Johnson had in confronting this inequity. Though equity in the form of nonpublic school vouchers was a casualty of the Bush Administration’s negotiations with the AFT and the Democrats on Capitol Hill (the NEA took no position on NCLB), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such “aid to the child” in its 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision.10

To Barack Obama, NCLB was achieving neither excellence nor equity. While the law’s supporters could cite a 2009 study showing a rise in fourth and eighth graders’ math scores under NCLB, its detractors noted that many states had lowered their standards to meet the legislation’s overly ambitious targets, and they denied a link between NCLB and higher test scores. To address these deficiencies, Obama in 2009 unveiled “Race for the Top,” a four-billion-dollar federal effort to reward states for school reform. Under the program, states would compete for federal grants based on their demonstrated commitment to academic excellence. Later that year, the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers devised a “Common Core” of voluntary national standards in math and reading. Every Democratic governor and all but four Republican governors signed onto the effort.

By the end of 2012, Common Core had become a virtual substitute for the No Child Left Behind Act, as the Obama Administration had issued waivers from NCLB requirements to forty-six states and the District of Columbia, which were observing the Common Core. As the Administration co-opted state-based reforms, however, resistance to Common Core grew from conservative Republican governors, some of whom had initially embraced the program but now claimed that it was repeating the sins of centralization which had undermined NCLB’s commitment to excellence.

The Obama Administration also criticized NCLB for failing to produce equity, as the performance of Native American, African American and Latino students lagged behind the outcomes of Asian Americans and non-Hispanic whites. The first African-American president thus proposed federal funding for universal pre-kindergarten education and tethered “Race to the Top” monies to progress in narrowing the achievement gap. Although he opposed nonpublic school aid, Obama promoted “public school choice,” strongly supporting lightly regulated charter schools as promising alternatives to failing public schools in pockets of poverty. As the Administration championed charters embraced by the business community, criticism arose from the AFT, NEA, and their liberal Democratic allies, all of whom endorsed Obama in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns but now maintained that he was repeating the sins of corporatism that had undermined NCLB’s commitment to equity.11

Just as a bipartisan national consensus on elementary and secondary education policy was emerging, forces on the right and the left were threatening to tear it apart at the local, state, and federal levels. Under Democratic Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee, Washington DC, in 2009, became the first city to link student testing to teacher evaluation, enraging the local teachers’ union. Under Republican Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin in 2011 imposed strict limits on public sector collective bargaining, provoking massive protests by the state’s public school teachers and other union members. Reforms like taxpayer-funded vouchers to students in nonpublic schools; “No Excuses” charter schools, which lengthened the school day, instituted frequent testing, and advocated a culture of high expectations; and “Teach for America,” which deployed elite college graduates to teach low-income public school students after only a five-week crash course, pitted critics against defenders of the public schools, each armed with their own studies and statistics.12

After a battle over equity in a time of post-war affluence, followed by a duel over excellence in an age of globalization, the combatants in the national education arena were now jousting over how best to achieve both in an era of information technology and income inequality. Some conservative Republicans charged that “one-size-fits-all” solutions and “federal control” of education were compromising the quest for excellence. Some liberal Democrats complained that “teaching to the test” and “union-bashing” were undercutting the pursuit of equity. The educational debate had not regressed to the rancorous climate that had postponed substantial federal school aid for two decades after World War II, but many of the arguments and alliances were beginning to sound familiar.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship on the subject of national elementary and secondary education policy has grown as the federal role has increased. The best books on this topic during the post-World War II era are Joel Spring’s The Sorting Machine Revisited: National Educational Policy Since 1945, which views federal aid to education as part a strategy by industrial and corporate elites to maintain their socioeconomic and political dominance; and Diane Ravitch’s The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980, which considers the expanding federal niche in education as a well-intentioned, if deeply flawed, attempt at ensuring equal opportunities for Americans regardless of gender, race, or class. Barbara Barksdale Clowse’s Brainpower for the Cold War: The Sputnik Crisis and the National Defense Education Act of 1958, Robert Bendiner’s Obstacle Course on Capitol Hill, Frank Munger and Richard Fenno’s National Politics and Federal Aid to Education, Sidney Tiedt’s The Role of the Federal Government in Education, and James Sundquist’s Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years also examine post-World War II issues in American education.13

Hugh Douglas Price’s essay, “Race, Religion, and the Rules Committee,” establishes the conventional wisdom that the “three R’s” blocked federal aid to elementary and secondary education during the John F. Kennedy Administration. Bendiner; Munger and Fenno; Sundquist; and Ravitch; as well as Hugh Davis Graham’s The Uncertain Triumph: Federal Education Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Years and Maurice Berube’s American Presidents and Education accept Price’s judgment. Lawrence J. McAndrews, in Broken Ground: John F. and the Politics of Education, rejects it, viewing Kennedy’s incoherent argument for permanent federal support of education to address a temporary crisis in school construction, and the highly partisan way in which he sought to enact it, as more damaging than any of the three R’s.14

Philip Meranto, in The Politics of Federal Aid to Education in 1965; Stephen Bailey and Edith Mosher, in ESEA: The Office of Education Administers a Law; and Eugene Eidenberg and Roy Morey, in An Act of Congress: The Legislative Process and the Making of Education Policy, join the above authors (except for McAndrews) in largely attributing the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to Lyndon Johnson’s conquest of the three R’s. Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe’s essay, “Race, Class, and the Emergence of Federal Education Policy from the New Deal to the Great Society,” challenges the racial component of this conventional wisdom, noting that many civil rights leaders feared that, rather than advance the country’s race relations, the ESEA’s emphasis on “compensatory education” to alleviate poverty might actually retard them. McAndrews’ The Era of Education: The Presidents and the Schools, 1965-2001 again minimizes the significance of the three R’s, highlighting instead Johnson’s coherent poverty rationale for permanent federal support of education and masterful management of his ample legislative majority.15

Scholars almost universally assail the short-term implementation of the ESEA. Bailey and Mosher as well as Eidenberg and Morey decry the bill’s hasty journey through Congressional committees. Graham and McAndrews echo Paul Peterson, Barry Rabe, and Kenneth Wong’s article, “The Maturation of Redistributive Programs,” in criticizing the ESEA’s funding formula for shortchanging the poor. Kantor’s essay, “Education, Social Reform, and the State: ESEA and Federal Education Policy in the 1960’s,” and Julie Roy Jeffrey’s Education for the Children of the Poor: A Study of the Origins and Implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 lament that the ESEA funneled federal dollars into failing state and local anti-poverty efforts. Carl Kaestle and Marshall Smith’s article, “The Federal Role in Elementary and Secondary Education, 1940-1980,” faults the ESEA for segregating Title I beneficiaries from those students not receiving Title I funds. For Patrick McGuinn in No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005, the ESEA suffered from a lack of clarity in its objectives, an absence of enforcement, and the remnants of racism.16

Milbrey McLaughlin’s Evaluation and Reform: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (along with Ravitch, Graham, and Jeffery), cites studies showing the failure of Title I programs to improve the academic performance of the poor by the end of the Johnson Administration in 1969. Michael Kirst and Richard Jung’s essay, “The Utility of a Longitudinal Approach in Assessing Implementation: A Thirteen-Year View of Title I, ESEA,” concludes that every assessment of the first four years of the ESEA criticized the distribution of Title I money.17

The scholarly appraisal of school desegregation during the Johnson years is less stark. Stephen Halperin’s On the Limits of the Law: The Ironic Legacy of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act laments that only one-third of formerly all-black schools had desegregated by the end of the Johnson era. But Gareth Davies’ See Government Grow: Education Politics from Johnson to Reagan credits Johnson for ensuring that 89 percent of Southern school districts were in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Gary Orfield’s The Reconstruction of Southern Education: The Schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act blames too much bureaucracy; Beryl Radin’s Implementation, Change, and the Federal Bureaucracy: Desegregation Policy in HEW (1964-1968) blames too much infighting; and Joseph Watras’ Politics, Race, and the Schools: Racial Integration, 1954-1974 blames too little money for the lack of even more progress.18

The historiography of the federal role in education during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies is less extensive but nevertheless significant. John Jennings, in “Title I: Its Legislative History and its Promise,” documents the misuse of ESEA Title I funds to aid non-Title I students as an argument to redirect, not remove, federal monies. Charles Norris, in Education, Inequality, and National Policy, takes the Coleman Report to a highly controversial extreme, arguing that federal dollars could not erase genetic deficiencies among African-American pupils. While Jennings employs a 1969 report by the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy and the NAACP, and Norris cites a 1969 study by Arthur Jensen and a 1972 analysis by Christopher Jencks, to draw their conclusions, McLaughlin and Jeffrey question the reliability of the federal government’s assessments of its own educational programs.19

Other scholars disagree. In their evaluations of the Ford and Carter years, Kaestle and Smith, as well as Kirst and Jung, find federal studies of Title I to be not only credible but encouraging. More progress under the ESEA would be possible, they maintain, with greater federal inroads into local educational jurisdictions. Kaestle and Smith are less sanguine on the impact of busing to promote school desegregation, however, challenging Orfield’s conclusion in Must We Bus? Segregated Schools and National Policy that more court orders would have produced more educational equity.20

Surveys of the Reagan era range from highly critical to mildly amused. John Brademas’ The Politics of Education: Conflict and Consensus on the Hill is the memoir of a liberal Democratic Congressman who finds Reagan’s budget cutting before A Nation at Risk disheartening and his speechmaking after A Nation at Risk disingenuous. Davies conveys the irony of the conservative Republican president who planned to eliminate the federal role in education deciding instead to expand it.21

Studies of education policy during the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies provide mixed reviews of the ESEA’s Title I (which reverted to its original name under Clinton). Kantor notes that Chapter One (Title I) elementary school students in the 1980’s showed gains in reading and math, but could not sustain them through middle school and high school. Jennings praises the advances in reading and math in the first five years after Clinton’s 1994 extension of the ESEA. Alan Odden, in “New Patterns of Education Policy Implementation and Challenges for the 1990’s,” decries Title I’s negligible long-term imprint on student achievement. To Geoffrey Borman, Samuel Stringfield, and Robert Slavin, in Title I: Compensatory Education at the Crossroads, although Title I had helped to effect some improvement, the achievement gap was widening by the end of the decade.22

Analyses of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama education policies center on the “No Child Left Behind Act” signed by Bush and the “Race to the Top” and “Common Core” embraced by Obama. McGuinn joins Paul Manna’s School’s In: Federalism and the National Education Agenda and Elizabeth De Bray’s Politics, Ideology, and Education: Federal Policy during the Clinton and Bush Administrations in viewing NCLB’s bipartisan origins and broad scope as nothing short of revolutionary. But Manna regrets the backlash against the implementation of NCLB by conservative Republican governors, while De Bray claims that the Bush Administration was not spending enough money for NCLB to succeed. Frederick Hess and Chester Finn, in No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-Decade of NCLB, laud the law’s intentions but lament that even in an age of seemingly endless research on the federal role in the nation’s schools, accurate assessments of the impact of NCLB remain largely elusive.23

Ravitch, once an ardent advocate of federal education reform in the George H. W. Bush Administration, had reversed herself by the time Bush’s son entered the White House. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, she deplores the offensive of testing, technology, and charter schools launched by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top against public education. Common Core supporters Hess and Michael McShane, in Common Core Meets Education Reform, warn that administrators’ concerns about the cost of meeting its demands for technological enhancements, unions’ apprehension about its role in teacher evaluation, and Republicans’ wariness of its federal overreach threaten to derail a program which had begun so auspiciously.24

Primary Sources

There is an ample supply of primary sources on national elementary and secondary education policy. Good places to start one’s research are the presidential libraries. The Harry Truman Library in Independence, Missouri; the Dwight Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas; the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin; the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California; the Gerald Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta; the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California; the George Bush Library in College Station, Texas; the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the George W. Bush Library in Dallas are rich in artifacts from these administrations. The website for each presidential library not only contains finding aids for online and on-site research, but also includes procedures for making Freedom of Information Act requests for documents that are currently unavailable. One can visit the National Archives in Washington, DC for additional federal education documents.

The papers of the public school teachers’ unions are also valuable repositories of information on this subject. The documents of the American Federation of Teachers reside at the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. One can discover sources from the National Education Association at the organization’s headquarters in Washington, DC. One can find studies and reports at the websites of education interest groups such as the Brown Center on Education Policy and the Center for Education Policy, as well as government agencies such as the Census Bureau and the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC contains significant evidence on school desegregation. The Catholic University of America Archives in Washington, DC holds documents that reveal the lobbying efforts of the American Catholic bishops for nonpublic school aid through 1966. For documentation after 1966, one should consult Origins Online.

Further Reading

Cross, Christopher. Political Education: National Policy Comes of Age. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004.Find this resource:

    Hochschild, Jennifer, and Nathan Scovronick. The American Dream and the Public Schools. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

      Jeynes, William H. An Educational History: School, Society, and the Common Good. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2007.Find this resource:

        Kosar, Kevin. Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 2005.Find this resource:

          Patterson, James T. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

            Pulliam, John D., and James J. Van Patten. The History and Social Foundations of American Education. Boston: Pearson, 2013.Find this resource:

              Reese, William J., and John L. Rury, eds. Rethinking the History of American Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.Find this resource:

                Smith, Gilbert E. The Limits of Reform: Politics and Federal Aid to Education, 1937–1950. New York: Garland, 1982.Find this resource:

                  Spring, Joel. The American School, 1642–1990. New York: Longman, 1990.Find this resource:

                    Vinovskis, Maris. From a Nation at Risk to No Child Left Behind: National Education Goals and the Creation of Federal Education Policy. New York: Teachers College Press, 2008.Find this resource:


                      (1.) Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine Revisited: National Education Policy Since 1945 (New York: Longman, 1989), p. 1.

                      (2.) Lawrence J. McAndrews, Broken Ground: John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Education (New York: Routledge, 2012), 7–9; 26.

                      (3.) McAndrews, 13, 33.

                      (4.) Spring, 8–10, 32.

                      (5.) McAndrews, 82–97.

                      (6.) McAndrews, Broken Ground, 178–179; Lawrence J. McAndrews, The Era of Education: The Presidents and the Schools, 1965–2001 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 8–10.

                      (7.) McAndrews, The Era of Education, 15–50; 120–127.

                      (8.) McAndrews, The Era of Education, 133–162.

                      (9.) Dana Millbank, “Bush’s Democratic Weapon,” Washington Post, 17 December 2001, sec. A, 1; Lizette Alvarez, “Senate Passes Bill for Annual Tests in Public Schools,” New York Times, 15 December 2001, sec. A, 20; David Broder, “Long Road to Reform,” Washington Post, 12 December 2001, sec. A, 1; Elizabeth De Bray, Politics, Ideology, and Education: Federal Policy during the Clinton and Bush Administrations (New York: Teachers College Press, 2006), 124–125.

                      (10.) McAndrews, The Era of Education, 224; Greg Toppo, “Common Core Standards Drive Wedge in Education Circles,” USA Today, 28 April 2012.

                      (11.) Manyee Wong, Thomas D. Cook, and Peter Steiner, “No Child Left Behind: An Interim Evaluation of its Effects on Learning.” Northwestern University. “President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan Announces National Competition to Advance School Reform,” Department of Education, 24 July 2009; Lyndsey Layton, “Common Core State Standards in English Spark War over Words,” Washington Post, 2 December 2012; Motoko Rich, “Obama Acts to Roll Back Bush-Era Law on Education,” International Herald Tribune, 7–8 July 2012, 4: Fawn Johnson, “Report Card,” National Journal, 8 January 2012.

                      (12.) Lindsey Layton, “Michelle Rhee, the Education Celebrity who Rocketed from Obscurity to Oprah,” Washington Post, 12 January 2013; Cole Strangler, “Union Armageddon Bill Targets Public Sector Collective Bargaining,” International Business Times, 25 March 2015; “Vouchers,” Education Week, 24 March 2013; Richard G. Fryer, “Creating ‘No Excuses’ (Traditional) Public Schools: Preliminary Evidence from an Experiment in Houston,” National Bureau of Economic Research; “Why Is Teach for America Controversial?The Economist, 18 September 2013.

                      (13.) Spring, The Sorting Machine Revisited; Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980 (Basic Books, 1985); Barbara Barksdale Clowse, Brainpower for the Cold War (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981); Robert Bendiner, Obstacle Course on Capitol Hill (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964); Frank Munger and Richard Fenno, National Politics and Federal Aid to Education (Syracuse University Press, 1962); Sidney Tiedt, The Role of the Federal Government in Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966); James Sundquist, Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1968).

                      (14.) Hugh Douglas Price, “Race, Religion, and the Rules Committee,” in Alan Westin, ed. The Uses of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1961), 1–73; Bendiner, Obstacle Course; Munger and Fenno, National Politics; Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade; Hugh Davis Graham, The Uncertain Triumph: Federal Education Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Years (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1984); Maurice Berube, American Presidents and Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1991); McAndrews, Broken Ground.

                      (15.) Philip Meranto, The Politics of Federal Aid to Education in 1965 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1967); Stephen Bailey and Edith Mosher, ESEA: The Office of Education Administers a Law (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968); Eidenberg and Morey, An Act of Congress; McAndrews, The Era of Education.

                      (16.) Bailey and Mosher, ESEA: The Office of Education; Eidenberg and Morey, An Act of Congress; Paul Peterson, Barry Rabe, and Kenneth Wong, “The Maturation of Redistributive Programs,” in Alan R. Odden, ed. Education Policy Implementation (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 65–80; Harvey Kantor, “Education, Social Reform, and the State: ESEA and Federal Education Policy in the 1960’s,” American Journal of Education 100, no. 1 (November 1991), 47–83; Julie Roy Jeffrey, Education for the Children of the Poor: A Study of the Origins and Implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University, 1978); Carl Kaestle and Marshall Smith, “The Federal Role in Elementary and Secondary Education, 1940–1980,” Harvard Educational Review 52 (Fall 1982), 384–408; Patrick McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965–2005 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006).<cont>

                      (17.) Milbrey McLaughlin, Evaluation and Reform: The Elementary and Education Act of 1965 (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1975); Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade; Graham, The Uncertain Triumph; Jeffrey, Education for the Children; Michael Kirst and Richard Jung, “The Utility of a Longitudinal Approach in Assessing Implementation: A Thirteen-Year View of Title I, ESEA,” in Education Policy Implementation, Allan Odden, ed., 39–64.

                      (18.) Samuel Halperin, On the Limits of the Law: The Ironic Legacy of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Gareth Davies, See Government Grow: Education Policies from Johnson to Reagan (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007); Gary Orfield, The Reconstruction of Southern Education: The Schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act (New York: Wiley, 1969); Beryl Radin, Implementation, Change, and the Federal Bureaucracy: Desegregation Policy in HEW (1964–1968) (New York: Teachers College Press, 1977); Joseph Watras, Politics, Race, and the Schools: Racial Integration, 1954–1974 (New York: Garland, 1997).

                      (19.) John H. Jennings, “Title I: Its Legislative History and its Promise,” Phi Delta Kappan 81 (March 2000), 516–522; Charles I. Norris, “Preface,” in Education, Inequality, and National Politics, Nelson F. Ashline, Thomas R. Pezzulo, and Charles I. Norris, eds. (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1976), xvii–xx; McLaughlin, Evaluation and Reform; Jeffrey, Education for the Children.

                      (20.) Kaestle and Smith, “The Federal Role in Elementary”; Kirst and Jung, “The Utility of a Longitudinal Approach”; Gary Orfield, Must We Bus? Segregated Schools and National Policy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1978).

                      (21.) John Brademas, The Politics of Education: Conflict and Consensus on the Hill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987); Davies, See Government Grow.

                      (22.) Kantor, “Education, Social Reform, and the State”; Allan R. Odden,”New Patterns of Education Policy Implementation and Challenges for the 1990’s,” in Education Policy Implementation, Allan Odden, ed., 297–328; Geoffrey Borman, Samuel Stringfield, and Robert Slavin, Title I: Compensatory Education at the Crossroads (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2001).

                      (23.) McGuinn, No Child Left Behind; Paul Manna, School’s In: Federalism and the National Education Agenda (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006); De Bray, Politics, Ideology, and Education; Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn, No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-Decade of NCLB (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2007).

                      (24.) Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (New York: Basic Books, 2010); Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (New York: Knopf, 2013); Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane, Common Core Meets Education Reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 2014).