From .......... GOVERNING AMERICA - An Insider's Report

By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.


271-274 ............... EDUCATION

I CAME to HEW enthusiastic about the opportunity to improve education in America, and determined to step up federal funding sharply. I left alarmed over the deterioration of public education in America and troubled by the threat to academic freedom that the federal role, enlarged and shaped by special interests, poses.

My parents believe deeply in the importance of education. My mother taught at Public School 189 in the Crown Heights/Bedford Stuyvesant section in Brooklyn for thirty five years. Her students, first and second-generation Jewish, Irish, and Italian children, had all been impressed with the need to "do well in school in order to do well in life." Both my parents paid careful attention to my grades, and sacrificed to send me to Holy Cross College and Harvard Law School.

Their devotion and the value my Jesuit and Harvard Law teachers placed on academic excellence, knowledge, and the search for truth imbued me with a respect for education that bordered on religious faith.

And my schooling, especially at Harvard, had opened doors to me: Wall Street law practice at Governor Thomas E. Dewey's firm, jobs at the Pentagon with Robert McNamara [a Roman Catholic] and Cyrus Vance - heady stuff in the late 1950s and early 1960s for a Brooklyn boy with no contacts.

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Then President Johnson tapped me to be his White House assistant for domestic affairs, and I knew everything I'd been told about the value of education was true. Johnson's personal commitment to education and my work for him added a new dimension to my understanding: Education was the key to freedom, to tapping the special potential of democracy to release the talents of its citizens, providing both the common tools we all need to function in a free society and the environment to nourish our most brilliant minds.

Johnson loved to quote the president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar, with proud flourish:

I sometimes wondered whether the quote was apocryphal, like Johnson's claim of direct descent from the defenders of the Alamo. But I knew he felt in every bone of his body a keen determination that

When Adam Clayton Powell pronounced Johnson's bill to aid elementary and secondary schools dead because of the church-state issue and a failure to provide sufficient help to black children, Johnson got him to designate Hugh Carey, then a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, to represent the House committee in negotiations with the White House. Johnson put his top congressional aide Larry O'Brien and Carey in an office in the West Wing of the White House, telling them,

Carey came up with a formula to provide more help to poor children and the concept of loaning textbooks to parochial schools, as library books are loaned. Johnson pushed the compromise, determined to get his bill. He invested much of his enormous energy in that task, and in 1965, proclaiming that

Johnson broke two decades of deadlock on federal aid to elementary and secondary education [signing the bill on April 11, 1965, Carey's birthday], and through his programs of loans and grants opened higher education to anyone with the talent to get into college. The Great Society elementary and secondary education programs to help poor children who needed compensatory education in reading, writing, and arithmetic began at $538 million. Funds appropriated under the bill were eventually dispersed to fourteen thousand of the nation's sixteen thousand school districts under a formula related to per capita income. By 1977, despite repeated vetoes of education appropriations by Nixon and Ford, funding for the program approached $5 billion.

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But the Nixon-Ford vetoes took some toll, and the ravages of inflation were such that by 1977 fewer than six million of the nine million eligible children were receiving help. In higher education, the Johnson student-aid programs started with $383 million in 1966. Expanded and reshaped by the Congress over the next decade, they totaled more than $3 billion in early 1977. Yet the amounts available to help pay college costs under these programs had fallen far behind escalating room, board, and tuition fees. Middle-class families, squeezed by taxes and inflation, demanded that income restrictions on eligibility for federal help to defray college bills be eased or lifted.

I recommended steep funding increases in education programs. I also proposed legislation to concentrate at least $400 million of compensatory education funds in communities with large numbers of poor children, those 3,554 school districts where six million of the nine million eligible disadvantaged school children lived. Carter agreed wholeheartedly, and Congress made some increases of its own. Federal funding for education rose by 63 percent, up some $4.8 billion from 1977 to 1980. Funds for elementary and secondary education rose from $4.5 billion to $7 billion; for higher education, largely student aid, from $3.3 billion to $5.6 billion.

President Carter and I agreed completely on the need for these increases. But we had fundamental disputes on other education issues. The wisdom of creating a separate Department of Education was one; the federal role in elementary and secondary education was another. With respect to the separate Department of Education, the eye of Carter's camera was on the politics of renomination and reelection, and over time he seemed only to sharpen its focus. When it came to the role of the federal Government, Carter's desire to improve basic skills led him to the genuine belief that HEW should run a national testing program against which elementary and secondary school children would be measured.

My concern with both these proposals stemmed from a fear that they threatened to breach the healthy limits on federal involvement in education. I also thought they gave insufficient weight to the wisdom, in a diverse democracy, of keeping primary responsibility for elementary and secondary education on states and local communities, and the danger that the increasing federal role posed to academic freedom, especially in higher education. There is no way to set educational policy in a political vacuum. But the pressures of local politics, close to the parents of the children in school, are far preferable to those of national politics where organized groups more easily lose sight of the interests of the teachers in teaching and children in learning. The proliferation of narrow programs, however well intentioned, each with its own legislative authorization or separate funding, had gone too far. Metric education, homemakers courses, ethnic studies, environmental courses, and various literacy and library programs, for example, symbolized the ability of each group to get from a pliant Congress what they were unable to get from a state legislature or local school board.

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Often the objectives of the national leaders of special interest groups do not reflect the fundamental interests of children and teachers in the classroom, and of society in an educated citizenry, so much as their own ambitions Ñ for example, the emphasis of the National Education Association on teachers' salaries and the right to strike, and the perception by many Hispanic leaders of bilingual education as a political cause rather than a teaching tool.

DURING THE 1976 presidential campaign I was unaware of the extent of Carter's campaign commitment to the National Education Association to establish a separate, Cabinet-level Department of Education. Not that Carter made any attempt to hide his promise: It was printed in the June 1976 NEA Reporter. Carter had responded to a written question:

Moreover, vice-presidential candidate Mondale trumpeted the promise at NEA meetings across the country. But such was the nature of special interest politics shrewdly practiced by the Carter campaign in 1976 - and such was the concentration of the media on personalities and political conflicts between Carter and Ford - that few national commentators paid any attention to the commitment and even fewer discussed it in any depth. The commitment was lost in Carter's repeated assurances that he would reduce the number of government departments and agencies from 1,900 to 200 in his promised attack on Washington bureaucracy.

I first became aware of the seriousness of Carter's commitment when I met with top NEA representatives John Ryor, Stan McFarland, and Terry Herndon in my law office in early January 1977. The meeting was friendly, in sharp contrast to the emotional exchange with the women's groups over abortion.

In 1972, McFarland had retained me to do the legal work to set up the first NEA political action committee. The NEA previously had adhered to a tradition of staying out of partisan politics. When Harry Truman proposed federal grants for higher education, the NEA stated,

And the NEA had not become deeply involved in Lyndon Johnson's successful effort to pass the Elementary ..................


GOVERNING AMERICA - An Insider's Report

From the White House and the Cabinet

By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

Published by Simon and Schuster 1981

ISBN 0-671-25428-6