Origins of Federal Control Over Education

Charlotte Twight is Professor of Economics and Chair of the Department of Economics at Boise State University.

Extensive federal control over elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education has long been a reality in the United States. The key federal statutes that gave rise to that control were the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Although these two statutes form the bedrock of federal education control, their passage involved extensive misrepresentation of the bills’ substance and the politico- economic circumstances ostensibly justifying the measures. Here as elsewhere in the twentieth- century expansion of U.S. government control over American citizens, key myths were actively cultivated by government officials to secure passage of legislation intended to serve as the foundation for future federal control.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958

The National Defense Education Act authorized unprecedented federal involvement in providing scholarships and loans to undergraduate and graduate students, in addition to funding state efforts to strengthen math, science, and foreign language courses in public schools. There had been earlier measures such as the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, granting first land and later money to the states for colleges emphasizing agriculture and the mechanical arts. The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act supported vocational education, and the first G.I. Bill (1944) authorized direct payments to veterans for educational purposes. In 1950 federal “impacted area aid” legislation authorized payments to school districts for property tax revenues lost due to the presence of federal facilities. But none of these earlier measures approached the NDEA’s involvement in the public school curriculum.

The usual explanation of the NDEA is that it was a logical, necessary, and perhaps inevitable reaction to the Soviet Union’s successful launching of Sputnik I (the first earth-orbiting satellite) on October 4, 1957, followed shortly thereafter by a dog-carrying Sputnik II. These events were represented to be of crisis proportions, demanding substantive U.S. response.

But the crisis was a sham, sold to the American public by politicians who knew it was a sham. Many legislators for years had wanted to expand federal control over education, and they saw in Sputnik an opportunity to package such expanded federal controls as a response to a”national defense crisis.”1 Members of Congress openly discussed the purported national emergency as a “better sales argument” to secure passage of the legislation. Shortly after the bill’s passage, Representative Frank Thompson referred to the NDEA as “a bill having a gimmick in it, namely the tie to the national defense.”2

Witness after expert witness acknowledged to congressional committees that there was no crisis—that U.S. military capabilities exceeded those of the Soviet Union. Even experts who began their testimony with claims of crisis and Soviet military superiority recanted later in their testimony. For instance, General James H. Doolittle unequivocally agreed that “we are behind Russia in military preparation,” concluding that “for us to catch up . . . we must overhaul our own educational system.” Later, however, he said “I will have to qualify that by saying that at the present time I believe that we are stronger, militarily, than Russia.” Likewise, after testifying extensively about the “present emergency” and Russian scientific superiority, Dr. Edward Teller stated that “we are ahead of the Russians in most scientific fields right now.”

Some administration witnesses such as Neil McElroy, Secretary of Defense, and Donald Quarles, Deputy Secretary of Defense, flatly denied that the Russian missile development program was ahead of the U.S. program. Even HEW’s Lawrence Derthick, U.S. Commissioner of Education, who urged Congress to pass the NDEA to strengthen U.S. education for reasons of “national security,” acknowledged that “as of this moment, we are not in grave danger” although such danger might materialize in 10 or 15 years.

Members of Congress well understood this testimony. For instance, a key Senate committee report stated that “the committee was informed that we are now probably ahead of the Russians in many scientific fields . . . .” Nonetheless, key congressional leaders, including Senator Lyndon Johnson, Representative George McGovern, and Senator Lister Hill, repeatedly raised the specter of Soviet supremacy as the essential rationale for the NDEA. Senator Hill claimed that “for the first time in the life of our Nation we are all looking down the cannon’s mouth.” In the end, with nota hint of the extensive testimony to the contrary, the conference committee report declared the “security of the Nation,” the “present emergency,” and the “defense of this nation” as the justifications for the NDEA.

Similar misrepresentation surrounded the issue of federal control of education. Given widespread public fear of expanding federal authority, legislators included a provision in the NDEA expressly prohibiting federal control of education. Designed to reassure the public, that provision meant something quite different to its authors than to the general public. To federal officials, federal “control” was avoided so long as states and localities were allowed to determine for themselves exactly how they would satisfy objectives that were established by the central government. As HEW’s Lawrence Derthick testified, “we identify a critical national need . . . . Now . . . you make a plan as to how you are going to meet this need in your State, and how you are going to administer this plan.” Representative Udall found the NDEA “unassailable on the point of Federal control” because “you are leaving the details of these plans, with general guidelines laid down, in State and local hands.”

Such are the origins of the “National Defense” Education Act of 1958. Nonetheless, despite senators’ perceptions of the NDEA’s “unbelievable remoteness from national defense considerations” and congressional recognition that the national defense rationale was only a “sales argument,” the Sputnik myth secured passage of the NDEA. As Senator Goldwater foresaw, the NDEA proved to be the proverbial “camel’s nose” of the central government in the education tent.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

A similar pattern is evident in events surrounding passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Between 1959 and 1964, proposals for expanded federal education legislation had become mired in the politics of desegregation. Only after the 1964 Civil Rights Act separated the two issues by prohibiting distribution of federal funds to institutions practicing racial discrimination was that barrier to future education bills removed. Political victories by Democrats in the 1964 presidential and congressional elections further smoothed the way for passage of the ESEA in 1965. However, despite favorable political circumstances, legislators again lied to the public to gain passage of the education bill.

This time the education bill was portrayed as an essential component of President Lyn-don Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Johnson recommended “a major program of assistance to public elementary and secondary schools serving children of low-income families.” The bill itself authorized federal financial assistance to local educational agencies “for the education of children of low-income families.” Again and again, legislators portrayed the bill’s objective as helping to enhance the educational opportunities of low-income children.

But the supposed benefits to low-income children were only the window-dressing, a sales argument analogous to the defense rhetoric that facilitated passage of the NDEA. In fact the ESEA was deliberately drawn to disproportionately benefit the wealthy, not the poor. Under its grant formula, each county would receive federal monies equal, initially, to 50 percent of the average per-pupil educational outlays in the state multiplied by the number of school-aged children of families in the county with incomes of less than $2,000. Since districts with as few as 10 low-income children (as well as counties with only 100 low-income children) would qualify for federal grants, the formula guaranteed that more than 90 percent of all school districts would receive assistance under this “antipoverty” measure.

The formula’s reliance on state per-pupil expenditures assured disproportionately large federal benefits to wealthier counties. Calling it an “absurd distribution of funds,” the House minority report showed that the formula would result in almost twice as much money being given to the ten wealthiest counties in the U.S. ($8,918,087) as to the ten poorest counties in the nation ($4,507,149). Moreover, once the funds were distributed, they could be spent to benefit rich and poor children alike. Senator Winston Prouty expressed it Clearly, stating that “the aid which we render the school districts that qualify, will be available to all schools in that particular district and will not be primarily for those poverty-stricken families.”

The chosen strategy was to target the ESEA’s education expenditures so as to make them politically irresistible, creating entitlements county by county. To facilitate the ESEA’s passage, the executive branch prepared (and the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee printed and distributed) charts showing on a county-by-county basis first-year federal funds that would be distributed under the proposed law. Combining county-level entitlements disproportionately benefiting the wealthy with the rhetoric of helping the poor proved politically unstoppable. As one witness put it, “Who can oppose war on poverty? Who can refuse to assist low-income families?”

Fear of government control remained a politically potent issue, as it had been with the NDEA. As in 1958, government officials again tried to redefine the meaning of “control” to assuage these fears. When challenged regarding federal control of education, administration witnesses insisted that government involvement did not amount to “control” unless it entailed interference in the actual administration of a program. According to their definition, if federal rules specified the overall direction of educational policy without involving the federal government in the actual implementation of that policy, we should not call it “control.”

Thus in his written testimony Francis Keppel, Commissioner of Education, stated that the federal role in program administration under the ESEA would be “restricted to,” inter alia, “preparing regulations establishing the basic criteria to be applied by State educational agencies in approving local plans . . . .” Disavowing federal “control” under the ESEA, Keppel defined control as “appointment of teachers, selection of what is taught, decision on when buildings are going to be put up, the nature of equipment, and the like.” Representative Charles Goodell expressed dissatisfaction with such linguistic maneuvering, stating:

I have read and reread in every single education measure . . . this nice, high-sounding, sweet little paragraph that there will be no control. Then you go right into the center of this bill where the power is, and it is right on page 8. The Commissioner sets the basic criteria for every State plan. The State gets the money only if they have a plan that meets the Commissioner’s basic criteria . . . . You can say it is not control, but they are telling them exactly how to go about it.

The “sweet little paragraph” indeed was included in the ESEA, with HEW Secretary Anthony Celebrezze and Commissioner Keppel insisting throughout that the federal powers established by the legislation represented only federally established “objectives” or federal “influence”—not “control”—over educational outcomes in the United States.

Another obstacle to passage of the ESEA was the church-state issue, centering on the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” In the past, the education lobby had been split by the common understanding that the First Amendment proscribed federal aid to parochial schools. Yet the text of the ESEA mandated that federal monies and programs be accessible to parochial school students, specifically bypassing state constitutional restrictions on state aid to parochial schools.

Again, the resolution of this issue did not entail open public debate of the relevant issues. Instead, the President enlisted Commissioner of Education Keppel to work out an ex ante accord between the key interest groups to avoid serious congressional de-bate of the issue. As Representative John Brademas explained:

[T]he White House believed that, if an agreement could be worked out among the groups that had, in the past, exerted such strong crosscutting pressures on Congress the way would be cleared for legislative acceptance of whatever compromise would be developed outside of Congress. 3

Through discussion at a series of private dinners, the interest groups reached an off-the-record accord on the church-state issue, resolving to present a united front asserting that the “constitutional question” had been overcome. They agreed to put forth a “child-benefit” theory, asserting that no constitutional problem existed if the federal funds were intended for the benefit of the child rather than for the benefit of the parochial school which the child attended. Thus, at the beginning rather than at the end of congressional hearings on the ESEA, Senator Jacob Javits stated that the church-state issue “appears to be resolved.” The off-the-record agreement that such expenditures would not be regarded as federal support of a religious institution precluded full and public congressional consideration of the serious constitutional questions involved.

The ESEA was rushed through Congress in less than three months. The strategy of the bill’s supporters was to avoid lengthy congressional consideration of the bill and to avoid divergent House and Senate bills that might require deliberation by a conference committee. Even senators who supported the bill with reservations signed a minority report protesting executive pressure to pass the ESEA without meaningful Senate participation:

This important and complex piece of legislation—on which our committee [on Labor and Public Welfare] heard more than 90 witnesses whose testimony filled six volumes and more than 3,200 pages—is to pass this body without a dot or comma changed; this is by fiat from the Chief Executive . . . . Privately, members of the majority and officials of the executive branch have been apologetic for this new effort to destroy the role of the Senate in the national legislative process. Yet they are powerless to change the rules laid down from above.

Why the rush? Why the deception? Why the private dinners and the off-the-record accord? As noted by Philip Meranto, public opinion polls show that the “passage of the Education Act of 1965 was not the result of increased public support for federal aid,” adding that “if the 1964 and 1965 polls were at all reflective of public attitudes, less than half of the adult population approved of the action taken.” A Gallup poll conducted January 28-February 2, 1965, found that only 49 percent agreed that the federal government should pay more of the costs of supporting public schools.4


Intentional misrepresentation by government officials undergirded passage of both the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. With the NDEA, the bill’s ostensible justification was the “Sputnik crisis”; with the ESEA, it was the “war on poverty.” But those fanning public apprehension about the Sputnik crisis did not believe it was a crisis, just as those promoting the ESEA as an antipoverty measure understood that it would disproportionately benefit the wealthy. It matters little how many come to understand the truth now: the bills became law; they altered U.S. institutions; and in due time they ineradicably changed public perceptions of the accepted (and hence acceptable) role of government. []

  1. 1.   Regarding the complex reasons for President Dwight Eisenhower’s support of the NDEA, see Robert A. Divine, The Sputnik Challenge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 4- 5, 31, 35—39, 41.
  2. 2.   Quotations of public officials here and elsewhere in this article are from contemporaneous public documents such as the relevant House and Senate hearings and committee reports. For details, see Charlotte Twight, “Federal Control Over Education: Crisis, Deception, and Institutional Change” (1994).
  3. 3.   John Brademas, The Politics of Education: Conflict and Consensus on Capitol Hill (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), p. 16.
  4. 4.   Philip Meranto, ThePolitics of Federal Aid to Education in 1965: A Study in Political Innovation (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1967), pp. 42-50, at p. 46; Dr. George H. Gallup, The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935-1971, Vol. 3 (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 1928.

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