Oh, What Might Have Been (In Praise of President Kennedy and His Vision for American Education)

In both 1961 and 1962, President John F. Kennedy sought to pass a general aid package for schools, which included federal subsidization of teacher salaries and building construction.  At the heart of this legislation was Kennedy’s desire to provide money for urban students affected by poverty in under-resourced American schools. 

Kennedy took a keen interest in solving the problem of inadequate preparation and unequal funding for economically deprived students in urban areas.  As previously mentioned, he twice sought to push legislation through Congress to fund these programs and address the disparity of resources between urban and suburban districts.  Relative to the disbursement of this aid, Kennedy wanted to steer it directly to municipal governments and away from state agencies that tended to allow federal resources to flow disproportionately to suburban areas. This mounting emphasis on poor students in urban areas reflected not only the Kennedy administration's pursuit of urban renewal, but also the growing influence of the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Unfortunately, the legislation was defeated by southern democrats who feared that Kennedy’s push for urban renewal and educational equality might hasten the desegregation of schools in their states.  And when Kennedy died on that fateful day in November of 1963, so too did his vision for providing federal aid to municipal governments with the expressed purpose of addressing the opportunity gap in poor urban districts.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, made a deliberate effort to carry this banner of equity by way of his “Great Society” domestic policies.  However, the legislation that made its way through Congress during Johnson’s time in office (specifically, Title I) was easily manipulated by suburban districts and used to fund already affluent and successful schools.  This was because, in order to win congressional approval, Johnson’s legislation was written in such a way that nearly ninety percent of all schools in America qualified for the aid.  Title I distributions, therefore, became the antithesis of Kennedy’s vision for addressing the opportunity gap in urban schools.

Fifty years later, we are still greatly in need of the broad implementation of Kennedy’s vision.  One need only look at the manner in which twenty-first century education dollars are spent in America in order to justify this conclusion. Just as it was in the 1960s, those with less money still have fewer tax dollars spent on their public education than those with more money.  In fact, spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low-income families. This is because many states operate under the notion that while a basic level of funding is a fundamental right of all students, that right does not require equality of spending among districts.  Therefore, wealthier districts with significant amounts of money (much of it derived from property taxes) have better schools while students in poorer areas helplessly find themselves in under-resourced districts. Inequality has become an acceptable component of our country’s policy for funding education.

Had Kennedy been given more time to cast his vision and see it through to reality, the American educational landscape may be far different today. Instead, we are having conversations about educational equity in under-resourced schools that should have ended in the 1960s.  Kennedy knew that allowing the states to determine their own educational funding schemes was a recipe for inequity and sought to address the issue by bypassing the states altogether.  Oh, what might have been if his dream had not been permanently bound in eternal sleep?