Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Eisenhower:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The Eisenhower Years: The Need for Schools and Obstacles to Federal Aid

After Eisenhower's election in 1952, the federal role in education acquired greater visibility than it had had in the past with the creation of a new cabinet-level department, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Launched after congressional approval in 1953, the new department oversaw the work of the existing federal Office of Education, which eventually became the "command center" of federal education policy-making. In the early 1950s, the most pressing issues facing education officials derived from the massive and widespread demographic changes of the baby boom. Between 1945 and 1955, the baby boom had added more than four million children a year to the nation's elementary schools. Inasmuch as birth rates had fallen during the Great Depression and scarce resources had gone to meet other demands during World War II, very little school construction had taken place in these years. Consequently, when the baby boom hit in the early 1950s, local districts faced a desperate need for more classrooms-as well as more teachers-to accommodate rising enrollments. In this context, many local school districts began to request federal aid.

At first, the Eisenhower administration hesitated to devote federal resources to education, which it considered a state and local matter. Three key issues prevented Eisenhower from increasing federal aid to education in the early 1950s. The first was a fear that federal aid might lead to federal control of schools. As Eisenhower remarked, "when an undertaking is predominantly local in character, the federal involvement should be restrained to avoid federalization." The second issue was the fear that federal aid might flow to religious or parochial schools. The third-and ultimately most significant-issue to block federal aid to schools in the 1950s was the issue of racial desegregation. After the unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954, federal aid could not support the construction of racially segregated schools. The court's decision had made the principle of "equal educational opportunities" a corollary to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and had found that racially segregated schools, when maintained by force of law or by any official state action, were "inherently unequal." Federal aid, therefore, would have to facilitate desegregation.


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Footnotes: The PDF version of this essay contains extensive footnotes that include numerous citations and supplementary text. For ease of reading, the footnotes are omitted from this version.


To view snapshots of the political context for the Eisenhower administrations, see Education Policymakers 1953-1956 and 1957-1960.