Lyndon Johnson: Education Reformer

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.

Speaking about how the then-modern economy limited the job prospects of the poor and poorly educated, Johnson tells Humphrey:

Now, by God, they can’t work in a filling station and put water in a radiator unless they can read and write. Because they’ve got to go and punch their cash register, and they don’t know which one to punch. They’ve got to take a check, and they don’t know which one to cash. They’ve got to take a credit card, and they can’t pull the numbers … Now that’s what you damn fellows better be working on. … But you make them go vote for education!
Reading, writing, and math—LBJ knew that, without these basic skills, the cycle of poverty could not be broken. This idea is still a cornerstone for the “no excuses” crowd (and if Lyndon Johnson was anything, he was a no excuses kind of person). We can never cure poverty without quality education, period (indeed, ESEA was specifically geared to direct resources to lower-income students).

But Johnson also understood that good public education requires investment. In fact, he considered it too important to run the risk of underfunding it. In the same conversation with Humphrey, Johnson’s hilarious communication skills transmit the urgency he felt to pass ESEA (as well as Medicare), and his commitment to investing in public education, no matter what the price:

Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education. I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about [First Lady] Lady Bird buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. Education and health. I’ll spend the goddamned money. I may cut back on some tanks.
(About that last sentence: keep in mind that, two days after this conversation, Johnson would send the first combat troops to Vietnam.)

Finally, LBJ’s commitment to education was, of course, part of his larger Great Society vision, one in which basic social safety net supports—such as job training, housing, health care, and assistance to the needy—were joined with education in a comprehensive approach to fighting poverty and inequality.

In his famous University of Michigan speech (the “Great Society” speech), later that month, Johnson laid out the “feedback loop” between poverty and poor education, and how improving one depends on improving the other:

A third place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms of America …We are still far from that goal. In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid, and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. So we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.
Lyndon Johnson won’t go down in history as infallible—quite the contrary. But even if you disagree with his policies and/or think they failed, he was as much a bona fide education reformer as almost anyone in U.S. history. His belief in the power of education (and good teaching), regardless of background, was unmatched. And yet he viewed public education as part of a larger public policy system. Do we?

LBJ was fond of saying, "there are only three things worth being, a teacher, a preacher or a politician." He was all three.