LBJ grew up in extreme poverty. He saw first-hand how schools could be the ticket out of a life of ignorance and hardscrabble survival. Johnson also knew that most schools got the preponderance of their funding through local property taxes. So, poor neighborhoods tended to have the schools ill-equipped to handle the “special needs” of their students. In a speech at the University of Michigan in 1964, LBJ declared,
“A third place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms of America. There your children’s lives will be shaped. Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal.”
This was the context for his push for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was a key part of Johnson’s anti-poverty program.
Johnson announced the ESEA by sending a message to Congress that laid out the case for federal action.
“I propose that the Eighty-ninth Congress join me in extending the commitment still further. I propose that we declare a national goal of Full Educational Opportunity. Every child must be encouraged to get as much education as he has the ability to take. We want this not only for his sake–but for the nation’s sake. Nothing matters more to the future of our country: not our military preparedness-for armed might is worthless if we lack the brain power to build a world of peace; not our productive economy–for we cannot sustain growth without trained manpower; not our democratic system of government–for freedom is fragile if citizens are ignorant.
“We must demand that our schools increase not only the quantity but the quality of America’s education. For we recognize that nuclear age problems cannot be solved with horse-and-buggy learning. The three R’s of our school system must be supported by the three T’s–teachers who are superior, techniques of instruction that are modern, and thinking about education which places it first in all our plans and hopes.
“Specifically, four major tasks confront us:
–to bring better education to millions of disadvantaged youth who need it most;
–to put the best educational equipment and ideas and innovations within reach of all students;
–to advance the technology of teaching and the training of teachers;
–to provide incentives for those who wish to learn at every stage along the road to learning.”
A transcript of the full address is at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27448.
A copy of the message received by the Senate can be viewed at the Association of the Centers for the Study of Congress at http://acsc.lib.udel.edu/items/show/43.
The ESEA became law four months after Johnson delivered his message.