As a new school year begins for students across the country, we remember the struggle for equality in public education that culminated in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. In The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, journalist Dana Goldstein outlines the complicated history of public education and the teaching profession. Goldstein praises teachers for the impact they have on young Americans and the role they take in shaping minds and giving students the tools they need to remedy the injustices they will see as they grow up.
In the excerpt below, Goldstein details how President Johnson developed a progressive philosophy on education as a young teacher in southern Texas.
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In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, desegregation was moving so slowly that no one could say for sure how Brown might ultimately affect the education of black children, or the employment of black teachers. A decade after the ruling, over 90 percent of southern black students still attended all-black schools. Of the 333,000 black children who had been integrated, 80 percent lived in border states, not in Deep South strongholds of massive resistance. In Mississippi, not a single black child had been allowed to enroll in a white school. Why? Except in a few high-proﬁle cases, such as President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School, neither the courts nor the executive branch stepped in when white schools turned away black students, when local banks denied credit to black parents who petitioned for their children to attend white schools, or when employers ﬁred those black parents in retaliation.
All that changed in 1964. President Johnson’s enormous popularity in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, as well as his peerless legislative maneuvering, allowed him to establish an unprecedented role for the federal government in local public education. Previous efforts to expand Washington’s inﬂuence over local schools had brought limited results. The launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite in 1957 prompted Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided several hundred million dollars to prepare high-achieving students for careers in the sciences, math, engineering, and foreign languages. The law did not address educational inequalities driven by race and class. John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 promising to pass a comprehensive federal education aid package, a liberal dream dating back to Reconstruction. But Kennedy’s efforts were stymied when ﬁghts broke out on Capitol Hill between lobbyists representing Catholic bishops, who wanted funding for parochial schools, and those representing teachers unions, who opposed aid to religious schools and prioritized higher pay for teachers. Then, during the frustrated decade after Brown, desegregation was the law, but not the reality.
When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Department of Justice could ﬁnally sue schools that resisted or delayed integration. The following year, the Voting Rights Act allowed many southern black parents to register to vote for the ﬁrst time. That meant black citizens could threaten to unseat politicians and school board members who opposed integration. By 1972, less than 10 percent of black students in the South attended an all-black school. Though true school integration would prove relatively ﬂeeting in many neighborhoods, it had, at least temporarily, been achieved.
The most lasting Great Society change for the nation’s schools came through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the precursor to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind. The 1965 law, initially funded at the massive level of $1.2 billion per year, united the Left and center around a new role for Washington as a standard setter for state education agencies and local schools. While the NDEA had targeted funding toward the best and brightest students, ESEA was all about “compensatory education” for the 19 percent of low-income public school students falling behind in poor, largely black and Hispanic schools. Federal aid would now be offered or withheld depending on whether local policy makers followed national directives, such as supplying low-income schools with up-to-date textbooks, establishing school libraries, and pulling at-risk students out of class for supplemental tutoring. States that offered their low-income students more state-level funding would be rewarded with more money from the federal government. Johnson portrayed this expansion of the federal bureaucracy in stirring, soaring rhetoric. He signed ESEA in his hometown of Johnson City, Texas, with his own elementary school teacher at his side. “By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children,” he said. “And we rekindle the revolution—the revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance. As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty. As a former teacher—and, I hope, a future one—I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all of our young people.” Those sky-high expectations placed on educators—as revolutionary foot soldiers in the War on Poverty— are still with us today.
To illustrate the transformative power of education, the president wove a careful political mythology around his own nine months working as a teacher in a low-income public elementary school. As a twenty-year-old college dropout in 1928, Johnson followed a girlfriend to south Texas, where the couple planned to earn a little money by teaching school. Johnson found work in the dusty cattle village of Cotulla, home to three thousand residents. He had attended subpar schools in central Texas Hill Country, but he was appalled by the even worse conditions at the segregated Welhausen School, where he taught the children of Mexican American laborers. The school had no extracurricular activities, no lunchtime, and no athletic equipment. The students and their parents struggled with basic English and lived in homes without indoor plumbing or electricity. Johnson wrote to his mother to ask her to send 250 tubes of toothpaste. Because he was male, he was quickly appointed principal. He instituted an “English only” rule on school grounds, founded a debate team that competed against nearby schools, assigned classic poems for students to recite from memory, and required teachers to stay after school to tutor children who needed extra help. His students would remember him as a strict disciplinarian who spanked children who spoke Spanish or talked back to their teachers. But by most reports, Johnson was an inspiring educator nonetheless. He began each school day by telling the story of “the little baby in the cradle”—a poor Mexican American child who sometimes grew up to be a teacher, sometimes a doctor, and sometimes even the president of the United States.
Johnson has been accused, in the words of historian Irwin Unger, of viewing education as “a magic cure for social failure and economic inequality.” But Johnson’s political messages about the children he knew in Cotulla were in fact quite complex. Rather than paint schools and teachers as saviors who could overcome the challenges of poverty (to borrow the phrasing of so many contemporary school reformers), Johnson described his teaching years with considerable humility. He recalled students who came to school hungry and who wordlessly understood that they were despised by whites for their brown skin and foreignness. In a March 1965 speech to Congress on “the American promise,” he portrayed himself as a young teacher walking home from work exhausted and lost in thought, simply “wishing there was more I could do”:
But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead. Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
As a mere classroom teacher, Johnson implied, he could not fully address the social challenges his students faced. To do more for them he would need to advance not only an education program, but also a broad agenda to negate the disadvantages of poverty and racism. There would be expanded access to food stamps, affordable housing, and afterschool and summer programs. There would be a federally funded preschool program for the poorest children, called Head Start. Johnson framed this agenda in nearly religious terms. “I want to be the president who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties,” he told Congress. “I want to be the president who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.” While there remains a consensus that income and educational opportunity are deeply linked, never again would a national school reform agenda be accompanied by so aggressive an antipoverty push.
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From the book The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. Copyright © 2014 by Dana Goldstein. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC