Expanding the Federal Role in Education (World War II to the Space Race)

The Postwar Years

Before 1950 the federal government played a minimal role in elementary, secondary, and higher education. It had partially funded the early development of public schools in the states through land grants in the early nineteenth century, and it had expanded opportunity for college attendance by creating land-grant colleges in the late nineteenth century. It had also given modest support for the differentiation of curriculum through its vocational education grants beginning in the early twentieth century. For the most part, however, education funding and policy were almost entirely in the hands of the states and local districts. The federal share of local school budgets in 1950 was, on average, 2.9 %.

Congress made its first foray into federal education funding in 1941 with the enactment of what would be called “impact aid,” which compensated communities that saw an influx of schoolchildren amid the swift expansion of tax-exempt military facilities. But the key major war-related federal activity in education was the Servicemen's Rehabilitation Act (1944), which provided educational support, housing loans, rehabilitation training, and other benefits to military personnel returning home after World War II. The principal beneficiaries of this “GI Bill” were White males, because many of its programs and program officers were biased against Black GIs and because the numbers of servicewomen were a tiny percentage of all returning veterans. For White males, however, it provided substantial opportunities in college or other education. It also helped to double the number of college graduates in the decade following 1945 (see Bound and Turner 2002, 784–815; Turner and Bound 2003.)

Liberal Congress members and the National Education Association lobbied for federal aid, not for programs targeted at particular educational goals but for construction, teacher salaries, or simply for spending at the discretion of local school boards. Their bills, however, were routinely defeated in the 1940s and 1950s, as they also were in the 1920s and 1930s. Opponents included southern segregationist Democrats, who feared that federal aid would be used to press for integration; Roman Catholic representatives, who supported their churches' position against federal aid to public schools; and conservative Republicans, who opposed federal aid as something intrusive and foreign-inspired. This effective Congressional alliance was dubbed the “3 R's” of localism in education policy: race, religion, and “Reds.”

It should be recognized, however, that not all opposition to federal aid was simply motivated by these negatives. The positive image of local control was shared by President Eisenhower, his friend James Conant—the most respected education reformer of the 1950s—and many local leaders. They saw local control as a spur to citizens' participation and support for public education, as well as a more efficient, responsive, and democratic form of governance. Unfortunately, those who championed local control of schools, either consciously or unconsciously, also favored inequality as well, not only because of racial segregation but because of vast disparities of per-pupil expenditures in districts with different property wealth.

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