Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Introduction:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

Introduction: Federal Aid to Education, 1900-1940

As the Civil War showed, wars often provide the impetus for expanding federal aid to education-owing not only to the broad exercise of federal power during wartime but also to the awareness of gaps in labor capacity that war reveals. In 1917, for example, the demands of World War I led to the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act, which promoted vocational-technical education and other forms of school-based job-training in various locales throughout the country. The post-World War I era also saw the expansion of small-scale federal grants for educating veterans and the disabled, including P.L. 66-236 (1920), an act to provide vocational rehabilitation for industrial workers disabled on the job. Federally funded services for the deaf and blind also grew in the1920s and 1930s. P.L. 74-139 (1935), to choose one example, increased annual appropriations for books for the visually impaired.

Some have argued that aid to education falls in periods of economic weakness, but, during the Great Depression, the needs of both disabled and disadvantaged pupils received increased attention. It is true that, in 1936, 1937, 1938, and 1939, "general aid to education" bills (the Harrison-Fletcher bill, Harrison-Thomas bill, Thomas-Harrison-Larrabee bill, and others) were repeatedly introduced-and defeated, owing to objections that schools must remain a state responsibility. In 1935, however, Congress created the National Youth Administration (NYA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), both of which expanded federally funded job training and skills development programs. Moreover, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (P.L. 74-320) authorized the Department of Agriculture to purchase surplus food for distribution to non-profit school lunch programs. In 1940, this law was amended to include a school milk program, and, in 1946, several related food-commodity laws were consolidated to provide free meals to low-income children under the National School Lunch Act.


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