When Democrats take over Congress in January, education ideas dismissed by Republican leaders may now receive a legislative hearing. One of those ideas should get conservative support: naming the Department of Education after Lyndon Baines Johnson. For better or worse, the department embodies his legacy.
Since 2003, members of the Texas delegation to the House of Representatives have proposed naming the Education Department building to honor President Johnson, who signed into law the programs that are the foundation of federal education policy. Republicans resisted the idea, but incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could choose to give the idea hearing in the 110th Congress.
Conservatives should embrace this initiative. Naming the Department of Education to honor LBJ would be a permanent reminder of the tragic history of federal education policy. It would also warn future Republican administrations and Congresses about the folly of Johnson’s “Great Society” strategy for improving education.
In 1965, President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. “No law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America ,” he declared. He also predicted that “all of those of both parties of Congress who supported the enactment of this legislation will be remembered in history as men and women who began a new day of greatness in American Society.” That bill would become the foundation of federal education policy.
Over the next four decades, the federal government’s role in education would grow. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation to create the Department of Education, a new cabinet-level agency. Federal spending on education continued to climb, and Congress created hundreds of new programs to improve America ‘s schools. In 2006, the federal government is spending more than $66 billion on elementary and secondary education through dozens of programs across multiple agencies.
Looking back, did President Johnson’s law usher in a “new day of greatness for American society”? Despite hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent on federal education programs, generations of American schoolchildren have passed through many of America ‘s public schools without receiving a quality education. A majority of these children are from the disadvantaged families that federal education laws were specifically intended to help.
Despite this sorry track record, politicians continue to follow President Johnson’s strategy for improving education: creating new federal programs and spending billions more of taxpayers’ dollars. In 2002, President Bush signed No Child Left Behind, a renamed version of Johnson’s original ESEA law. The law marked “a new era, a new time in public education in our country,” proclaimed President Bush.
In some ways, he was right. No Child Left Behind did mark a new era. The law shifted federal focus from inputs to outcomes. It also increased federal power in education by introducing new federal mandates on state student testing.
But No Child Left Behind also followed the pattern of the Great Society by seeking to achieve improvements in America ‘s schools by expanding the federal government’s involvement.
For many years, Republicans had rejected this approach. They believed that federal authority should be devolved back to the state and local level. In 1980, President Reagan was elected after pledging to abolish the Department of Education, and restoring state and local authority in education remained a Republican priority throughout the 1990s
In 1999, Republicans pursued this goal by backing the “Academic Achievement for All” Act, known as “Straight A’s.” This proposal gave states the opportunity to cut through education bureaucracy and use federal education funding on state-directed reforms to improve student learning. A pilot version of Straight A’s passed the House of Representatives in 1999. But the idea of restoring state authority quickly lost traction during the debate over No Child Left Behind.
Today symbols of the Bush Administration’s temporary imprint on education stand outside the Department of Education. To enter the building, one must walk through a fake red schoolhouse emblazoned with the slogan “No Child Left Behind.” So much for shuttering the department.
But it is easy to imagine a day when that schoolhouse façade will be taken down. All that will be left is the massive Department of Education building-a lasting monument to President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s failed strategy for improving American education.
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