Lawrence J. McAndrews, The Era of Education: The Presidents and the Schools, 1965-2001

Lawrence J. McAndrews, The Era of Education: The Presidents and the Schools, 1965-2001 (Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006)

You may order a copy of this book here.

Reviewed by Kevin R. Kosar

When working on my dissertation, on education policy and politics from 1789 through 2002, I was surprised to find so little research on the history of the federal role. I was pleased to find a number of articles and dissertations that examined one or another aspect of this topic; books, though, were few.

Clowse’s study (1981) of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 helped me understand education politics in the Eisenhower era.  Likewise, Smith’s The Limits of Reform (1982) helped me grasp the congressional battles during the Roosevelt and Truman years.  In trawling for research on John F. Kennedy and education, I found Broken Ground, a 1991 study by Lawrence J. McAndrews.  It was a wonderful find that provided me with a solid history of how the politics of race and religion and feuds over the scale of the federal government bedeviled efforts to expand the federal efforts to expand the federal role in schooling.

McAndrews’ latest text, The Era of Education, is a welcome addition to the still somewhat sparse scholarship on the history of federal school politics and policy.  It “explores the transformation of the federal role in elementary and secondary education through the words and actions of seven [presidential] administrations, their adversaries, and their allies, underscoring that change, which entered this ‘era of education’ as a hopeful possibility, exited the twentieth century as a formidable challenge.”

Anyone who has looked at any of the federal budgets of the past 40 years can tell you that there are hundreds of federal schooling programs.  Studying them all in one text is, obviously, a hopeless task.  Furthermore, trying to construct a straight chronological narrative that sensibly renders the complex vicissitudes of federal education policy is a daunting task.  McAndrews avoids this Sylla and Charybdis by limiting his policy scope to three large topics: public school aid (in particular, the ESEA’s Title I), school desegregation, and nonpublic school funding programs.  McAndrews splits the book’s chronology into two chunks: 1965 to 1981 and 1981 to 2001.  Each chunk has three chapters, one for each large policy area.  (Introductory and concluding chapters bookend these six chapters.)  This structure carries the benefit of permitting readers with particular interests (e.g., Richard M. Nixon or nonpublic school aid) to dip into the book and read the chapters that meet their needs.  Class instructors may find this feature especially attractive feature.

There are a few downsides to this approach.  First, some big policies get excluded.  Neither aid to special education children, a pricey and raucously debated policy, nor impact aid, which has funneled federal dollars to schools for over 60 years, get much coverage.  Second, the chunked structure may make those who read the book from start to finish might feel jerked about through time.  Third, treating these education policies separately attenuates the political linkages between them.  Obviously, for example, when a president and Congress are grappling over a reauthorization of Title I aid they need negotiate over Title I aid to both public and nonpublic schools.

Nevertheless, McAndrews succeeds in presenting a concise overview of the policies promoted and pursued by presidents Lyndon B. Johnson through William J. Clinton.  He gives readers a good sense of who did what and when and also what the policy and political disputes were.  McAndrews draws on government memoranda and communications from presidential libraries and other archives and interviews with prominent policy players, such as Caspar Weinberger, former Health, Education, and Welfare, and Helen Bain and George Fischer, former National Education Association (NEA) heads.  McAndrews also mined the scholarly record, drawing out articles and dissertations likely known to very few (e.g., John G. Muncie , “The Struggle to Obtain Federal Aid for Elementary and Secondary Schools, 1940-1965″).

Education politics and policy tends to elicit great passions from its students, some of which, unfortunately, frequently seep into the research; authors hand out white and black hats to the players spin morality tales of good advocates for children battling mean old skinflints and bigots.  Happily, The Era of Education displays no left or right bias; this chronicle is very even handed.  Indeed, if there is any bias in this volume, it would seem to be of the sort expressed in the zinger usually attributed to H.L. Mencken or Frank H. Simond — “There is only one way for a newspaperman to look at a politician, and that is down.”  Elected officials on the left and right both come off badly as we see them compromise their principles and change their positions for political advantage.  In 1976, candidate James E. Carter, for example, said he was in favor of finding a “constitutionally acceptable means” to provide federal aid to nonpublic schools.  As president, though, Carter, saw no advantage in provoking the wrath of public school unions who supported him.  So, he scrounged up a bit more funding for private schools, but did little otherwise. (107-117)  Catholic groups were outraged and their members punished him by voting Reagan into office.  Similarly, George H.W. Bush said he favored federal vouchers in 1988.  Once in office, though, he dropped the idea, only to take it up again after being pressed by “nonpublic school interests.” (200-207)

Indeed, the idealist, the person who thinks that education policy and politics should be an effort to do what is right and best for the children, may come away from this book shaken.  Individuals and groups on all sides of the issues are shown behaving selfishly and engaging in gutter tactics.  Even Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), who was often portrayed by the media as being an intellectual who floated above the political fray, get down and dirty.  In 1978, Congress, including twenty-eight Catholic members, voted against establishing tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to religious schools.  Yet, Moynihan told Catholic supporters that the defeat was due to anti-Catholic bigotry.  (117-118)  Interest groups, such as the NEA, also behave less than honorably.  Across the board, interest groups’ response to receiving federally largesse is to demand more and more and to tar anyone who disagrees with them.  Politicians, meanwhile, do not appear to be much interested in the efficacy of education policies.  Rather, education programs are vehicles for using taxpayers’ dollars to court interest groups’ support.  It is an ugly picture.

If there are two shortcomings of this book, they would be: first, I wish it was longer.  Too often I found myself scribbling in the margin, “Say more!”    For example, we read that Senator Jessie Helms and conservatives helped kill a $1.1 billion education aid bill in 1990 (135).  Why they did this, though, is not explained.

Second, the final chapter mostly summarizes the preceding text.  I had hoped for a more analytical characterization of the shifts in education politics during “The Era of Education.”  McAndrews does point out that in this new era all presidents felt a pressure to be “education presidents.”  This is a big point; from 1789 to 1964, few presidents bothered with education policy.  McAndrews also depicts the waning of desegregation as a major political issue.  But what more did we learn in these pages?

Arguably, we see evidence for at least two more generalizations.  First, the power of presidents to pursue innovative education policies continues to be constricted by iron triangles between public school interest groups, congressional committees, and the Department of Education.  Republican presidents have had some success in using tuition tax credits and vouchers to create public pressures that have cracked these triangles.  Democratic presidents, meanwhile, have had limited freedom to pursue new policies for fear of alienating public school interest groups.

Second, that the shape and size of the policy and political field that presidents and Congress play upon has been greatly shaped by the federal courts.  Most presidents, quite probably, did not want to deal with the divisive issue of bussing.  Yet, once the courts entered the fray, they were forced to take a stand on the issue.

Third, that presidents’ increasingly must be very careful about doing anything to appear to be “against” education.  Woe to the president who proposes reducing the appropriations to any education program — even if he intends to shift the money to a more publicly beneficial policy — for he will be tarred by interest groups and electoral opponents as a meany.

If we are lucky, in the second edition of this book McAndrews will treat readers to more details about the politcking and his own assessment of the shifting nature of federal schools policy and politics.

(This review appeared originally in Teachers College Record, September 25, 2006.)

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