Who Has Been The Best U.S. President for Education?

I participated in a recent web-based discussion answering the question: which U.S. President was the “best” for education since the 1930s. The moderator offered each participant the opportunity to take a President from an earlier period or just restrict one’s self to the last few decades. The definition of “best” was left to the participant. I voted for Lyndon Baines Johnson (1964-1969) as the “best” education President. My reasons are below. The forum can be accessed at: http://learningmatters.tv/blog/web-series/who-was-americas-best-education-president/7879/

Who would you vote for? Why?

In January 2009, President of the United State...

Image via Wikipedia

Four facts convinced me to vote for LBJ as the “best” education President.

FACT 1: Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the federal role in schooling had expanded dramatically since 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), particularly Title I. No Child Left Behind (2002) is the latest of the federal reauthorizations of ESEA.

FACT 2: ESEA focused national attention and took action for the first time on the connection between poverty and low academic achievement. Education was a key component of LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” His Administration initiated Head Start, Upward Bound, the Job Corps and dozens of other efforts in the late-1960s.

FACT 3: Presidents Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have converted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of the Great Society from a poverty-based federal “entitlement”program (mainly through Title 1) into a standards-based accountability program that expanded testing and established rules for acceptable academic performance touching every one of the 14,000-plus school districts that received federal dollars. No longer a poverty-reduction effort, ESEA is now a testing and regulatory machine that identifies and punishes failing schools.

FACT 4: As a federal regulatory machine to raise academic achievement and end the gap in test scores between poor and non-poor children, it has failed. That failure is because the expanded federal role had to rely on a state and local infrastructure that was unable to reverse the persistent failure of schools to reduce either poverty or inequality in distribution of wealth. State and local districts lacked a coherent curriculum, a technical capability for assessment, and well-trained teachers. Moreover, the federal government contributed less than a dime out of every dollar spent on schools and states perpetuated a funding scheme that gave fewer resources to the most needy students.

Based upon these four facts. I voted for Lyndon Baines Johnson.

None of the most obvious candidates for “best” education president—H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama–had made any substantial effort to directly attack the societal problem of poverty through political and legislative action to alter socioeconomic structures that manufacture poverty and maintain maldistribution of wealth in the U.S (e.g., progressive income tax policies, raise minimum wage, expand earned income tax credit, increase housing vouchers). Instead, they indirectly dealt with poverty through helping the next generation of children. That includes LBJ.

But at least Lyndon Johnson made the connection that schools can reduce poverty, albeit indirectly, by helping individual children acquire educational credentials and the social capital that would have personal payoff in the job market and life. No President before him did so and every President since he served built on the linkage he made. That connection between education and poverty is (and was) crucial since doing very little to directly alter fundamental socioeconomic and political structures leaves U.S. schools still largely reproducing inequalities, except for that small fraction of individuals who succeed in school,go on to collect educational credentials, and garner decent paying jobs .

About these ads

4 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

4 responses to “Who Has Been The Best U.S. President for Education?

  1. Larry, thanks for the analysis. Here’s the issue as I see it. LBJ looked at the right focal point. However, bringing power to the federal level paved the way for everything else that has come; i.e. “a standards-based accountability program that expanded testing and established rules for acceptable academic performance touching every one of the 14,000-plus school districts that received federal dollars.”

    This is why so many folks are anti-central power. Over years, the power increases and always creeps into something so far from the original intent. LBJ You illustrated it perfectly here. Under LBJ “the federal role in schooling had expanded dramatically since 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)” which eventually led to NCLB and beyond.

    So, I agree he had the right focal point and was the best. I just wish it didn’t have to pave the way for the mega-power grab by the USDOE/government.

    • larrycuban

      Carmen,
      I agree that state and federal power over schools has increased dramatically since the mid-1960s. Where once local districts ruled unimpeded by state or federal authorities beginning in the 19th century through the 1950s, now the center of gravity has become state capitals and Washington, D.C. I do not think that it will ever shift back to localities although much variation exists among states (e.g. Vermont, New Hampshire, Oregon with strong local control; New York, Florida, California with strong state direction). The current reauthorization struggle will redefine NCLB and the accountability/testing regime will shift somewhat toward states rather than federal direction. Accountability regulations will ease somewhat but Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama have converted ESEA into a testing machine with a still weak infrastructure of state governance of schools, professional capacity building of educators, and continued high attrition of young and career teachers.

  2. Harvey Pressman

    We should not ignore Millard Filmore, who, by example, taught the most important lesson of all: “If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.”
    (You could get to be President).

    Harvey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s