Political Rhetoric and Implications for Education – An Interview with Alan Singer

Mar 28, 2018 by

By Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) It seems that every President has something to say about education. Going back to John F. Kennedy, did he have any clear concise position on education?

President John F. Kennedy had inconsistent views on public education. In the 1950s, he pushed for federal aid to religious schools, but backed off from this position while President. In response to pressure from Martin Luther King, Jr. he called school desegregation a priority, but in his shortened time in office he did little to promote it. Kennedy’s biography Ted Sorenson claimed that education was Kennedy’s domestic priority, but as with most “Camelot” visions, they were rarely translated into policy. At various times, he called for increased teacher salaries and expanding financial aid for college students. In a speech at Vanderbilt University in Vanderbilt in 1963, Kennedy told the audience “Liberty without learning is always in peril.” That quote probably is the best short summary of his views, but his record was definitely spotty.

2) Where did modern federal involvement in education start?

Education first emerged as a federal responsibility, at least partially a federal responsibility, during the Eisenhower presidency when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in 1957. President Eisenhower responded with support for a National Defense Education Bill promoting math and science education. In his 1959 State of the Union address he called national standards for teachers and teaching, probably the first president to do so. Eisenhower also deserves credit for using federal troops to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock high school.

But credit for the major impetus for federal involvement in education goes to Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society programs and “War on Poverty.” The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in 1965. Title 1 of the act provided federal dollars to help local school districts educate their most disadvantaged students. The act required equal access to education and established both high national standards to eliminate regional, class, and racial education gaps and included measures to ensure state and local accountability.

The federal government has reauthorized ESEA very five years since it was initially passed. The Bush era No Child Left Behind Act of 2001and the Obama 2015 initiative Every Student Succeeds acts were both reauthorizations of the original LBJ program.

3) Fast forward to Ronald Reagan who started his Presidency right after mainstreaming and inclusion seemed to be fully implemented. What did he have to say?

Reagan was elected on an anti-government, anti-public education platform. From the start, Ronald Reagan wanted to role back Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and abolish the federal Department of Education, which has been a Republican battle cry ever since. Reagan supported school vouchers, tuition tax credits for private school students, mandatory prayer in schools, and a curriculum designed to promote patriotism. Like Kennedy, his record on education was definitely spotty.

One Reagan achievement, a negative achievement, was the 1981 Education Consolidation and Improvement Act. Its purpose was to reduce federal enforcement of Title 1 regulations.

4) George Bush had “No Child Left Behind,” what motivated this simple phrase that seemed to cause so much consternation?

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed by Congress in 2001 with overwhelmingly bipartisan support to reauthorized the 1965 LBJ legislation. President Bush used the phrase three days after taking office when he first announced his education plans. However, the slogan was actually a variation of the Children’s Defense Fund’s motto “Leave No Child Behind,” which the group had been using for at least a decade. NCLB significantly increased the federal government’s role holding schools and districts responsible for the academic progress of all students. It put a special focus on improving the performance of English-language learners, students in special education, and poor and minority children.

When President Bush signed NCLB at Hamilton High School in Ohio he declared, “We know that every child can learn. Now is the time to ensure that every child does learn.” Bush held the signing ceremony at Hamilton, Ohio because it was the home district of Congressman John Boehner, who he credited with shepherding the bill through Congress. In the speech, he also praised Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts for helping turn the legislation into law. I can find no evidence of where the bill’s title came from.

4) Should the phrase and the ideas behind “Race to the Top” be attributed to Education Secretary Arne Duncan or President Barack Obama and what was involved?

Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top grant program was actually part of his post-2008 economic recovery program, although it was definitely a major expansion of the federal government’s role in public education. Given the eventual stiff opposition to the program, it is surprising that when Obama and Duncan announced it jointly on July 25, 2009 it received very little media coverage. The Los Angles Times had a brief notice that accused the Obama administration of escalating a disagreement with California education leaders over the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Obama and Duncan warned states that if they barred the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers they risked losing federal funds.

5) It seems that these pithy phrases stick with us, but do they really accomplish a great deal?

Pithy phrases are really political marketing devices. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top definitely had more selling power than the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but LBJ was really pushing the idea of a Great Society and a War on Poverty.

6) Does Donald Trump have a “stock phrase” for education policy yet or is he leaving it to Betsy DeVos?

We all know Donald Trump’s one overriding slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Everything else pales before that one. We also know that Trump wants his subordinates to be subordinate – or else they are gone. During the campaign Trump pledged to cut and “suggested” he might eliminate the Department of Education. He’s major educational program since then seems to be his proposal to arm teachers. In October 2017, De Vos did outline her “vision” for American education. Her main priority is her advocacy for “school choice,” which translates into vouchers, charters, and tax credits aimed at privatizing education in the United States. Her slogan, if she has a specific slogan, would be “Empower Families through School Choice.”

7) Who and what phrase have I neglected to ask about?

Three things. Where can I get additional resources? What is the origin of the federal Department of Education? Which of the nation’s founders had the most to say about education?

1. A good resources for Presidents on the issues is the website On The Issues.

2. The first federal Department of Education was established in 1867 as part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and its responsibility was the education of newly freed African Americans in the South, however it was demoted from department level to office one year later and eventually ended up as a minor bureau in the Department of Interior where its concern was the education, or “miseducation,” of Native American children. A cabinet level Department of Health, Education and Welfare was created in 1953 and an independent Department of Education in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter.

3. Thomas Jefferson, one of the earliest Presidents, was also one of the most committed to the importance of education to promote and protect democratic society, although he believed education was a state, not a federal responsibility. In a letter to James Madison, written in 1787, Jefferson wrote: “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

In an 1816 letter he wrote: “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” Later, in 1820, Jefferson expanded on these sentiments, writing “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” If I were to choose a brief phrase to summarize Thomas Jefferson’s educational philosophy, it would be from a 1795 letter where he wrote: “Light and liberty go together.”

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