Beginnings of Federal Involvement
Education, like many government programs, received only minor attention during WWII as the war effort was top priority. After the war however, it quickly became apparent that the education system across the nation needed significant work. In towns and states with only average growth, the citizens had outgrown their facilities which were often already outdated. This problem was more pronounced in poorer regions, as they did not have the means, via local and state taxes, to create more suitable learning environments. There were also a number of substantial technological advancements resulting from the war that teachers and facilities at the time simply were not equipped to teach (Kizer, 1970).
Thus in 1947, a movement began that called for federal involvement in school funding to help bring the education system back up to speed. Spearheaded by Sen. Robert Taft, followers of the movement felt that the federal government’s greater power to tax and distribute funds made it the unit best able to deal with the problems facing the public school system. Further, Taft suggested that education was increasingly becoming a federal matter as education was the best defense against totalitarianism and that having a basic minimum standard of education was a national priority (Cornell, 1947). Though the outlook for federal funding to bring schools up to speed originally was bright, opposition soon surfaced. Those that were against this federal involvement typically fell into one of the following four groups; southern states rights advocates, northern conservatives, Roman Catholics, and those that feared the federal funding would aid parochial and private schools (Kizer, 1970). Because of the staunch opposition these groups created, it would take the better part of two decades for federal aid money to be nationally distributed. It is important to note though, that this was not the case for all federal aid money. As early as 1950, the federal government distributed money to school districts that were adversely affected or overburdened by an influx of people due to local military bases (Kizer 1970).
The desegregation movement, which began to grow following Truman’s Executive Order to desegregate the military in 1948, experienced a major victory in the public school system six years later. The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case, which declared segregation in the nation’s public schools illegal, was a turning point in US education and society in general. Though the federal government now recognized the legitimacy of the civil rights movement, it’s willingness to stand behind that belief would soon be tested. In deciding how best to go about desegregating schools, (in a Supreme Court case commonly referred to as “Brown II”) the court gave the duty of desegregating individual schools to district courts and stated only that this desegregation occur “with all deliberate speed.”
While the social movement began to pick up steam in the latter half of the decade, the issue of desegregating all of the nation’s schools had yet to be solved. In the South, there were still those who tried to hold on to segregation in schools as long as possible. The most notable incident of this was in Little Rock, AK. The state’s governor refused to admit a group of black students to a historically white school, and brought in the state’s National Guard to prevent the students from attending. President Eisenhower then intervened and issued the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students, exerting the federal government’s power over the state (Eisenhower Archives). Though desegregation was beginning to move from being de facto to de jure, it would still be a number of years before all of the advances of the civil rights movement were codified in legislation.
During this period, both the citizens and the federal government recognized that the national education system needed to be brought up to date. This was especially true in light of the dawning atomic age. The faults in US education were of special concern as the Cold War began, and sparked a crisis following the Russian’s launch of Sputnik. Beginning and solely because of this, congress drafted and passed the legislation that put the National Defense Education Act into effect (Flattau et al., 2006). Though it partially built off of the foundation created by the National Science Foundation and the GI Bill, this act thrust the federal government into education policy and funding. This emergency response to Sputnik involved a strengthening of the education infrastructure, specifically in math and science, as well as providing greater access to secondary and postsecondary education (Flattau et al., 2006). While the launch of Sputnik prompted the race between the US and Russia that would last for the next few decades, every aspect of the United States began to be scrutinized and compared to its Russian equivalent. This was especially true of education, as shown in books like What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t. In a war whose outcome would be decided not by the number of troops one has but by the intelligence of one’s scientists, education could make or break a nation.
Following the tragedy of JFK’s death and Johnson’s swearing in, the education and desegregation policies discussed earlier get the final push needed to become law. Johnson, a Democrat with a largely Democratic congress, saw this as an opportunity to pass a package of social improvement policies which, as a whole, are commonly known as the “Great Society.” The purpose of these policies was to eliminate poverty and social injustice in the United States. In this period, congress created social welfare and anti-poverty systems, solidified civil rights, and passed two landmark education policies, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act. This shift in focus in the nation from primary societal needs to fine-tuning the aspects of it will continue throughout the Cold War period as the US pushes not only to provide the best society possible, but one that is substantially better than that of Russia.