The Johnson Years: Education and Poverty
Whereas Kennedy had focused on mental retardation and urban renewal, Johnson placed his emphasis on civil rights and poverty. His first two legislative successes were the passage of the Vocational Education Act and the passage of the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963, both of which passed within the first month of his presidency. A few months later, he shepherded the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in all programs receiving federal aid, and (in short order) the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which extended anti-discrimination provisions into the workplace, into law. By the fall of 1964, President Johnson had laid a foundation for his War on Poverty, the centerpiece of his so-called Great Society agenda, and the next major item on this agenda was a massive increase in federal aid to education. Johnson was, of course, familiar with his predecessors' repeated failures to pass a "general" aid-to-education bill, and he did not want to make the same mistakes. At the same time, however, he knew that existing federal aid under the NDEA, the impact-aid program, and various programs for the disabled were not sufficient to meet the growing needs of students in the nation's poorest areas. It was time, he believed, for a massive increase in federal aid to disadvantaged students.
In 1964, the U.S. Office of Education issued a major report titled Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation. The next year, a national conference of urban school administrators inspired delegates from the Milwaukee public schools to pass a resolution "supporting a federal program for school financial assistance that recognizes the complex needs of the larger city school systems." In 1964, only three states-Massachusetts, California, and New York-offered state aid to local compensatory education programs, and this aid was limited in scope (in Massachusetts, the total program for the entire state operated on a budget of $650,000). Johnson therefore appointed a presidential task force led by commissioner of education Francis "Frank" Keppel to meet secretly to develop a plan of federal grants "to improve educational opportunity and achievement of students attending schools in areas- both urban slum and rural depressed -marked by high rates of unemployment and low per capita income and educational achievement."
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.