Underlying virtually all contemporary education policy debates is the question of poverty. Certainly, high poverty and inequality do not mean we shouldn’t improve schools. On the other hand, the standpoint of some in the debate today evolved from an inarguable, commendable notion (poor kids can learn too) to an ideological brick wall, behind which those who dare speak poverty’s name are accused of “making excuses."
Anyone who reads history (or who has lived through it) knows that the tension between poverty and equality of educational opportunity is nothing new, nor is the debate about how to address them. For example, these same issues arose during the campaign to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, as President Lyndon Johnson cajoled everyone he could to push the bill through Congress.
Unlike most of the political leaders who are the self-proclaimed education reformers of today, Johnson had been a teacher. His teaching experience, at a small segregated school for Mexican Americans in the impoverished town of Cotulla, Texas, convinced him that poverty and educational inequality must be tackled in tandem.
Full disclosure: I have a minor obsession with Lyndon Johnson (it feels good to say that out loud), and I have read all of the released transcripts of the phone calls and White House meetings that LBJ recorded. In one of these conversations—on March 6, 1965—Johnson is speaking with Hubert Humphrey, his newly-inaugurated Vice-President, who spent much of his term serving as LBJ’s liaison to Congress. Johnson’s deep belief in quality public education as a key to reducing poverty comes across in this conversation.