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On the Wire
Education Policy of the Democratic Party
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on July 30, 2004
Copyright 1996-2008 www.Criticism.Com
This essay appears in The Encyclopedia of the American Democratic and Republican Parties, published by the International Encyclopedia Society. The encyclopedia won the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1997.
1 Supporting Federal Aid
2 Truman Makes Aid an Issue
3 Kennedy Forcefully Backs Aid
4 Ideological Differences
5 Clinton Takes Action
7.1 Democratic Party
7.2 Republican Party
8 Bestselling Books on the Democratic Party
The Democratic Party, its candidates, and elected politicians have established a consistent record of initiating and supporting federal aid for education. Although the party began its early years by opposing federal educational assistance, the party soon altered its position, taking a favorable stance toward education that has endured, albeit in changing policies, through the first half of the 1990s.
Before the party turned to supporting education, one Democrat attempted to thwart an early piece of historic legislation. The Morrill Act, introduced by Vermont Representative Justin Morrill in 1857 to donate land to states and territories for colleges, was among the first attempts to provide federal aid for education. The measure, however, was vetoed in 1857 by Democratic President James Buchanan, who maintained that it unconstitutionally interfered with states' rights. Although the objection that federal involvement in education interferes with states' rights has been a refrain often repeated, usually by the Republican Party, the constitutionality of federal aid for public schooling is considered by many to have been settled by precedence. Legally, the argument that the federal government's involvement is unconstitutional also seems to hold little validity. Indeed, even in the early years of the battle over aid for education, the constitutionality argument failed to persuade Congress. A resubmitted Morrill Act was passed in 1862 and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.
The constitutionality issue aside, the proper role of the federal government in public education was to increasingly become a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans and at times among Democrats themselves. But first the stage had to be set.
After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat nominated by the Union Party, approved a federal Department of Education in March of 1867. The department was soon demoted and renamed the Office of Education from 1870 to 1939, when it was subsumed under the Federal Security Agency, later the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Congress established the U.S. Department of Education on May 4, 1980.
In 1870 Republican President Ulysses S. Grant implored Congress to support primary education, an entreaty that became a precursor to the future struggles over federal aid to education. The battle lines, however, would typically though not necessarily be drawn along partisan lines, with Republicans opposing and Democrats favoring federal involvement in education. During the year of Grant's request, the struggle in Congress, but not yet the partisanship, began when George F. Hoar, a Republican representative from Massachusetts, introduced a bill to provide general aid to public schools. Although Hoar's bill never came to a vote, it served to focus attention on the issue.
In 1876 the Democratic Party took a view that the party and its candidates would repudiate after having remained nearly silent on the issue for several election years: the platform declared that the establishment and support of the public schools belonged exclusively to the states. Then, as the Republican platforms of 1880, 1884, and 1888 and the Republican presidents of 1880 and 1888 endorsed national support for education, the Democrats kept quiet. From 1880 to 1920 the Democratic Party platforms made little mention of the subject. Grover Cleveland, the Democratic president from 1884 to 1888 and again from 1892 to 1896, also had little to say on the matter. After the 1888 presidential election, the Republicans also dropped the issue.
The issue did not resurface significantly until 1920 -- when the positions of the parties had been reversed: The Democrats favored federal aid to education while the Republicans condemned all aid except that for vocational and agricultural training. The Democrat Party platform called for "co-operative federal assistance to the states" for the removal of illiteracy, the increase of teachers' salaries, and instruction in citizenship. The reversal completed the requisite conditions for partisan conflict and, in general, established the positions that the two parties would henceforth take.
Meanwhile, the 20th century brought social crises that manifested themselves in bills, often proposed by Democrats, for new federal legislation on education. The rate of selective service rejections, for instance, prompted demands for aid in 1918, just as the rejections during the World War II draft rekindled the debate over federal aid. World War II also brought legislation to supplement education in communities affected by the war effort. The teacher shortage after World War II inspired the aid proposals of the late 1940s. The Depression of the 1930s led to emergency aid to education. And the baby boom of the 1950s spawned school construction bills. The Cold War and the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in 1957 helped spur the National Defense Education Act. The civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s encouraged legislation to help equalize educational opportunity. Yet to a degree beyond that established by any one of these social crises, initiatives -- first from Congress and later from Democratic presidents -- emerged for general federal assistance for education, though they were not to arise in earnest until the 1930s.
In fact, despite the Democrats' pro-education platform of 1920, the issue had lost much of its poignancy by 1924 among the Democratic party, which by now merely held that the "federal government should offer to the states such counsel, advice, and aid as may be available through the federal agencies for the general improvement of our schools." Four years later, during the election year of 1928, the Democratic Party reiterated the stance of 1924.
The 1930s found the Democratic Party avoiding endorsement of an expanded education program, even though Democrats took credit for helping youth stay in school and for the construction of school buildings with public works funds. Other than endorsing the original Americanization bill, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic president from 1912 to 1920, did little else of major significance regarding education.
Beginning with his election in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first Democrat in the White House since Wilson's term of 1916 to 1920, renewed the failed struggle of Republican Herbert Hoover, president from 1928 to 1932, to reduce appropriations for vocational education in the states. Congress, however, rejected Roosevelt's appeal and sought an increase, passing a measure in 1936 that expanded the program. Roosevelt signed the bill, but he appointed a Committee on Vocational Education to review the program. Responding to pressure from Congress for a general federal aid bill, Roosevelt expanded the committee's sphere to include all aspects of federal education policy. In February 1938, the committee, now renamed the Advisory Committee on Education, recommended a multimillion dollar education-assistance program. Roosevelt, however, did not endorse the report, prompting Congressman John J. Cochran, a Missouri Democrat, to say that "the president of the United States has in no way expressed himself as either for or against the recommendations of the committee he appointed."
Roosevelt soon found himself hard-pressed to take a stance. To the Thomas-Harrison bill of 1939, prepared on the basis of the Advisory Committee's report and approved by the Senate's Education and Labor Committee, the administration responded that the legislation did not fit the president's program. Roosevelt said in speeches that he would only accept an aid program that limited assistance to those states unable to fulfill their own educational needs. Roosevelt continued to avoid endorsing federal aid through 1943.
But Roosevelt's cool attitude toward federal aid for education did not stop the Democratic Party from taking up the issue with renewed force in 1944, even though the Republicans included no mention of the school-aid issue in their platform. The Democratic Party platform called for federal aid to education administered by the states.
During his final year in office, Roosevelt extended a partial commitment to education. He wrote in his budget message to Congress in 1945 that selective service records expose shortcomings in elementary and secondary education. "If a suitable standard is to be maintained in all parts of the country," Roosevelt wrote, "the federal government must render aid where needed--but only where it is needed."
Democrat Harry S. Truman, the vice president during Roosevelt's final term and his successor after Roosevelt died in April 1945, took a more active position toward education than did Roosevelt. In fact, Truman made aid for education one of his campaign issues in 1948. And Truman's first budget called for legislation to supplement the resources of the states to help them equalize educational opportunities and achieve satisfactory standards. Subsequent Truman budgets also set aside money for education.
While Truman turned aid to education into a campaign issue in 1948, the Democratic Party repeated its 1944 call for federal aid -- this time with a direct attack on the Republicans: "We vigorously support the authorization, which was so shockingly ignored by the Republican 80th Congress, for the appropriation of $300 million as a beginning of federal aid to the states to assist them in meeting the present educational needs." The challenge was a precursor to the partisan conflicts over education that surfaced during the next presidential election year. For the time being, however, the Republicans generally avoided the issue.
By the election of 1952, the education-aid issue had moved further into the spotlight, and the Democratic and Republican parties took sharply contrasting positions. The Democratic Party refined its position of the previous elections by outlining school construction, teachers' salaries, and school maintenance and repair as the specific purposes for which federal support should be allocated. The Republican Party's platform maintained that the responsibility for sustaining popular education rests with local communities and the states.
But by 1956 the two parties were again backing away from their differences. The Republican administration had proposed a school construction program, and it was now supported by the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Democrats, taking a position not largely different from the Republicans', endorsed legislation to help states and local communities build schools, to educate migratory workers, to set up programs for gifted children, and to train teachers in technical and scientific fields.
In 1958, the National Defense Education Act was approved by Congress at the urging of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Even though the act was advocated by a Republican president and sanctioned by bipartisan support in Congress, its passage signaled an expanded role for the federal government in education, prompted in part by concerns over the country's national defense and rate of scientific advancement, which had arisen after the Soviets' launched Sputnik the previous year and in response to the Cold War in general. The measure supported science, math, and foreign language programs in public schools.
With the election of 1960, however, partisan controversy returned. Although the platforms of both parties supported federal aid in principle in 1960, the kind of support the two parties had in mind was radically different. The Democrats called for generous financial support for, among other educational programs, teachers' salaries and construction of classrooms and other facilities, spurring the Republicans to counter that aid for teachers' salaries could lead only to federal domination and control of schools. The Republicans supported only limited assistance for school construction. The contrast between the two parties' policies blossomed into a major domestic issue of the presidential campaign -- a campaign that also compelled the two parties in Congress to solidify their positions.
Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1960, seized upon federal support for schools and attempted to make it a major issue in the election. He blasted President Eisenhower for giving only limited support to the issue and attacked the Republican candidate for president, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, for backing only a limited construction program and for referring to federal aid for education as "too extreme."
Kennedy is often regarded as being the first president to make federal aid to education a major component of his domestic program and to back it forcefully. After taking office in the White House, Kennedy handed Congress a proposal in 1961 asking for a three-year, $2.3 billion aid-to-education program. As embodied in Oregon Senator Wayne E. Morse's School Assistance Act of 1961, the bill sought, among other initiatives, to provide increases for teacher salaries, assistance in constructing classrooms, and aid to children in depressed areas. Though passed by the Senate and approved by the House Education and Labor Committee, the School Assistance Act died in the House Rules Committee. The bill is significant, however, in demonstrating the assertive role that Democrat Morse, then-chairman of the Subcommittee on Education, took in advocating federal involvement in education. Senator Morse introduced numerous bills as he fought unrelentingly to expand federal aid to education. Unfortunately for Morse and the Democratic Party, the School Assistance Act's death was hastened, in part, by the fight over aid to parochial schools; Catholics had lobbied for such support.
Even President Kennedy, despite his crusade for school aid, stopped short of allowing public funding for private schooling. "There can be no question of federal funds being used for support of private and parochial schools. It is unconstitutional under the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court," Kennedy said. In 1947 the Supreme Court had ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that "no tax in any amount ... can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion." Kennedy's comments notwithstanding, the administration eventually weakened its stance against aid for parochial schools in the hopes of achieving a compromise on a major aid bill.
In 1962, Kennedy tried again, asking Congress in his State of the Union speech to pass his aid-to-education bill, which he modified to give priority to aid to higher education, advancement of teaching standards, and adult literacy. Congress took little action on the bill and it withered. Again the controversy over aid to parochial schools helped squelch the bill.
Kennedy tried yet again in 1963 -- a year that was to become a prolific one for the Democrats in their campaign for federal aid to education. Kennedy put forth an omnibus education bill called the National Education Improvement Act of 1963. It died in the House.
Although President Kennedy failed to get an omnibus education-aid bill through Congress, several education bills, some of which embodied parts of Kennedy's proposals, did become law either during the Kennedy-Johnson administration or in the years to come. Two major 1963 bills that became law and the Democrats who helped push them were the following:
The Vocational Education Act of 1963, otherwise known as the Perkins-Morse bill after Democrat Carl Perkins, a representative from Kentucky, and Democrat Wayne Morse, a senator from Oregon. The act, signed by President Johnson, a Democrat, on December 18, 1963, was aimed at strengthening and expanding vocational education.
The Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963, also known as the Morse-Green bill after Senator Morse and Representative Edith Green, also an Oregon Democrat. The purpose of the act, signed by Johnson on December 16, 1963, was to help colleges construct facilities. Green, like Morse, was a tireless and innovative advocate for education, earning herself the title "the mother of higher education." During her 18 years on the Committee on Education and Labor, she played major roles in much of the educational legislation that took place in the House -- even though she did not always agree with or support her fellow Democrats. Also in 1963, Green, herself formerly a school teacher, published a study called The Federal Government and Education that took issue with a long-standing Republican criticism of federal aid: That it lacked sufficient historical precedent. Green's study found the precedent to be 100 years old.
The rift between the parties only grew during the 1964 presidential campaign, which was characterized by vast differences in ideological positions among the candidates and their parties. Presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican from Arizona, a long-time critic of the expanding role of the federal government, maintained that support for education was a step toward subordinating state and local governments to administrative divisions of the central government in Washington. He also held that there was no educational problem requiring federal aid. In contrast, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was a strong advocate of the strengthened role of the federal government and the strongest supporter of federal aid for education yet to occupy the White House. Johnson's platform promised additional and expanded aid to supplement those programs enacted by what had been dubbed the "Education Congress of 1963."
Johnson, after winning the election, fought to fulfill those campaign promises. Indeed, the greatest amount of educational legislation yet followed the election of 1964. Pushed by such Democratic members of Congress as John Brademas of Indiana and Carl Perkins of Kentucky, both serving on the House Education and Labor Committee, and signed into law by President Johnson, several major pieces of educational legislation became law.
On January 12, 1965, President Johnson called for a new federal initiative to support elementary and secondary education. The same day, Representative Perkins, then senior member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, introduced a bill that embodied Johnson's goals. Meantime, Senator Morse, Democrat of Oregon, proposed an identical bill in the Senate. On April 9, Congress approved the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, doubling the federal share of elementary and secondary education expenditures. At the act's core is Title 1, renamed Chapter 1 in 1981, which assists school districts with large numbers of low-income children. Johnson signed the act on April 11, 1965.
Another major bill enacted during the Kennedy-Johnson years is the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, also known as the War on Poverty Bill. Although not an education act per se, the measure, presented to Congress by Johnson, included education among its ammunition to be used in the war. The bill earmarked money for such programs as a Job Corps for youth, job training and vocational rehabilitation, and basic education for adults. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also had a strong impact upon education. It was passed to foster desegregation of public schools and to ensure equal rights to students regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin. The Higher Education Act of 1965, written and moved through Congress by Representative Green, provided students with federal aid. In 1966 the International Education Act, which approved grants to colleges for international studies and research, was signed into law by President Johnson. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a New York Democrat who was chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee at the time, created a task force to steer the legislation through the House and appointed as its chairman Representative John Brademas, Democrat of Indiana, who was instrumental in winning passage of the bill.
Other education-related acts, many of which were components of President Johnson's War on Poverty and aimed in particular at helping children from low-income families, included Project Head Start, the Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and Upward Bound.
Many in the Democratic Party -- including Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter and Rep. Brademas -- also fought to establish research foundations. For example, although it was Republican President Richard M. Nixon who urged the establishment of a National Institute of Education in a speech to Congress in 1970, it was Rep. Brademas who introduced the bill, which became law in 1972.
Besides Nixon's call for the institute, the Nixon administration initiated few other proposals to help education. As a result, Congress, especially certain of its Democratic members, took an increasingly active role in proposing educational legislation. For instance, Democratic Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, chairman since 1969 of the Education Subcommittee of the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, worked to develop a direct form of financial assistance to college students. Pell's grants for needy undergraduate students eventually became law.
The years 1973 and 1974 saw legislators from large, industrial states pitted against those from smaller, rural ones over the allocation formulas of Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Representative Brademas's compromise formula became law in 1973.
Another measure of note during the 1970s is the Middle Income Student Assistance Act of 1978, which sought to aid middle-class students who needed assistance in paying for college. The measure was proposed in response to a tuition tax-credit bill. According to Representative John Brademas, he and Democratic Congressman William D. Ford of Michigan, both of whom were on the Education and Labor Committee, told Joseph A. Califano, Jr., the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter administration, that an alternative to the tax credit was needed. Their initiative helped induce President Jimmy Carter, himself a Democrat, to propose in 1978 a Middle Income Student Assistance bill, which became law. The measure, however, only postponed additional calls for a tuition-tax credit, made by Republican President George Bush.
The 12 years following the Carter administration were dominated by Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Former Democratic Representative Brademas has written that Reagan administration "has been more hostile to education than any other administration in the nation's history." It reduced or attempted to reduce many federal education programs, from Chapter 1 to student aid.
President Bill Clinton, the first Democrat in the White House since Carter, has taken decisive action to support education. After taking office, he signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which passed Congress with strong bipartisan support. The act seeks to improve teaching and learning by providing a national framework for educational reform. More recently, Clinton signed into the law the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994, which extends for five years the authorizations of appropriations for the programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. President Clinton has also fought, often with the threat of vetoes, to keep a Republican-controlled Congress from slashing funds for various education programs. In addition, the Clinton administration has chosen education as a battle ground in its budget battles with Congress.
Democratic Party members in Congress have also taken action against the Republican's Contract With America, which seeks to cut funding from such social programs as education and job training. Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Labor and Human Relations Committee, has attempted to shield education from budget cuts. Senator Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat, and Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, have fought against Republican-proposed cuts to the Americorps program, which provides thousands of students with a way to earn money for education.
As the presidential election of 1996 approaches, the issue has surfaced over whether parents should be provided with school vouchers to send their children to private, public or religious schools. Clinton says that while he backs public school choice and charter schools, he does not support using public funds to pay for private schools.
Brademas, John with Brown, Lynne P. The Politics of Education: Conflict and Consensus on Capital Hill, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Meranto, Philip. The Politics of Federal Aid to Education in 1965: A Study in Political Innovation, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1967.
Mitchell, Douglas E. and Goertz, Margaret E., editors, Education Politics for the New Century, Bristol, PA: The Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis, Inc., 1990.
Munger, Frank J. and Fenno, Richard F., Jr. National Politics and Federal Aid to Education, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1962.
Spring, Joel. Conflicts of Interest: The Politics of American Education, White Plains, NY: Longman, 1988.
Tiedt, Sidney, W. The Role of the Federal Government in Education, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Wirt, Frederick M. and Kirst, Michael W. The Political Web of American Schools, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
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