Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Introduction:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

Introduction: Federal Education Policy, 1940s

Both the New Deal and World War II contributed dramatically to the size as well as the scope of federal activities. The 1940s in particular brought significant increases in federal aid to education. In 1940, Congress passed the Lanham Act, which supported the construction, operation, and maintenance of school buildings for children whose parents were employed by the federal government (primarily on military bases). This law set at least two key precedents. First, it laid the foundation for aid to federal "impact" areas-aid that was later expanded under P.L. 81-815 and 81-874 , both of which passed in 1950; these laws offered general, largely unregulated financial aid to replace local property tax revenues lost on federally controlled lands. Second, and less-often noticed, the Lanham Act provided federal aid for nursery schools and day care for mothers involved in the war effort; in this way, it established funding for pre-school education as a legitimate federal concern (though, in later years, as critics pushed to return educational responsibilities to the states, the idea of federal aid to early childhood education became harder and harder to sustain).


In 1944, Congress passed the biggest package of federal aid to education to date: the Serviceman's Readjustment Act, commonly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights (P.L. 78-346). This law entitled veterans who had served at least ninety days in the armed forces to a year of secondary, special, adult, or college education, plus an additional month of education for each month in the service, up to a total of 48 months. Veterans received $500 in federal aid per year-paid directly to approved institutions of their choice-and they were free to use this money to cover tuition, books, supplies, and all applicable fees. They also received a monthly living allowance. After the war, the G.I. Bill and federal aid to "impact" areas became the largest sources of federal support for education. Both programs were extremely popular among local administrators, because they distributed loosely regulated grants that could be used to meet virtually any need.


After World War II, the political climate for such aid changed. Local willingness to accept federal aid gave way to local fears of "federal control." In 1948, representative Graham Barden (D-NC) introduced a bill to provide "general aid" to public schools, but it failed after opponents raised the specter of "communistic" federal involvement in local schools as well as the prospect of federal aid going to parochial schools. Indeed, a highly publicized confrontation in New York between former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Roman Catholic leader Francis Cardinal Spellman ultimately killed Barden's bill in 1949. At the height of the controversy, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote from his post as president of Columbia University in New York to denounce federal intrusion into public schools, commenting in typical cold war rhetoric that, "unless we are careful, even the great and necessary educational processes in our country will become yet another vehicle by which the believers in paternalism, if not outright socialism, will gain still additional power for the central government."

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