Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Nixon Years: Desegregation and Local Control
The issue of racial imbalance in public schools became more prominent during the presidential administration of Richard Nixon-somewhat ironically, the most active presidential administration since World War II in terms of a steadily expanding federal role public education. Shortly after Nixon's inauguration in late January, 1969, the new president appointed James E. Allen, Jr., former state commissioner of education in New York, to serve as both federal commissioner and assistant secretary of education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Allen was no stranger to the challenges of public school politics, including the politics of compensatory education and the politics of racial desegregation. He had cut his desegregation teeth as early as 1963 when, as New York state commissioner, he had imposed the nation's first racial-balance plan on schools in suburban Malverne, N.Y. In defending this action, he commented that "Segregated schools are a deterrent to full equality of opportunity, and, personally, I think this is true for white as well as Negro children."
Pursuing racial desegregation was, however, much more complicated than it first appeared. Five years later, in 1968, the administration of the New York City school district was decentralized by legislative act. Stressing a need for "community advisory councils" to guide the implementation of state and federal policies designed to raise student achievement, the state legislature turned power over to thirty-three locally elected school boards and made them responsible for promoting more effective programs. By this time, demands for "community control" had outpaced demands for racial balance, so New York put parents and other locally elected school board members in charge of their elementary and middle schools. In 1969, when Allen became federal commissioner under Nixon, he required schools receiving Title I aid to include parents "in the early stages of program planning and in discussions concerning the needs of the children in the various eligible attendance areas." Allen thus built his federal commissionership around the goal of making inner-city schools "effective" despite their continuing racial imbalance-a goal that struck some as overly acquiescent and others as politically pragmatic.
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.