The history of unrequited love: U.S. presidents and K-12 education

Here’s something to ponder with furrowed brow as Election Day nears.

In my spare-time reading, I’ve recently been on a twentieth-century-U.S. Presidents kick. This morning, as TV coverage of Tuesday’s election was simmering in the background, I finished a third very good book in the last few months.

And then suddenly it struck me.

In each of these books, international relations loom large. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember a meaningful passage from any of the books about K-12 education. So I went to the indexes.

Eisenhower
From Eisenhower to Bush, education gets scant attention in presidential bios.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

I just finished the revealing The Presidents Club, which tries to uncover the relationships between current and former presidents. It stretches from Truman to Obama.

Number of references to “education” in the index of this 527-page book?

One.

In a chapter on LBJ’s relationship with Eisenhower, “aid to education” appears among a long list of domestic issues on Johnson’s agenda.

Before that was Robert Caro’s latest on LBJ, the extraordinary The Passage of Power, which focuses on how Johnson shifted from emasculated vice president to briefly omnipotent president in a matter of weeks

Number of references to “education” in the index of this voluminous book?

Two.

LBJ’s “education bill” shows up twice. In the first reference, it is listed among a range of administration bills that are less important to the president than tax and Civil Rights legislation. In the second, it is again among a list of bills the administration was able to pass.

In both instances, it is mentioned and given no further attention.

The third was the excellent Eisenhower: In War and Peace.

Number of references to “education” in the index to this 766-page book?

One.

Ike’s “National Defense Education Act,” which “changed the face of the American education system” is given a half-paragraph of attention. And even that is couched in terms of America’s response to Sputnik (a foreign-policy matter).

This is really quite amazing. K-12 education barely registers on the presidential Richter scale time and time again. A reasonable person could read these books and conclude that presidents either don’t care about K-12 education or that they put little of their energy into it.

Reading The President Club, I was struck by how often sitting presidents quietly seek the counsel of their predecessors on foreign matters, especially international crises. Moreover, incumbents have often engaged publicly former presidents on international issues, from signing ceremonies for trade agreements to actually sending them abroad to resolve tricky situations.

This simply doesn’t occur when it comes to K-12 education.

There are, in fairness, a few countervailing points worth noting. First, of course, K-12 has been, historically, a state and local matter. Uncle Sam’s entry into this business line is a relatively recent development. Since Ike and LBJ served before the shift, we might expect their presidential narratives to be light on elementary and secondary education.

But the passage of Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act is among the most important K-12 events of the last fifty years. And by Ike’s biographer’s own admission, the NDEA was a game changer. But both appear as virtual footnotes in the annals of history.

So maybe our beef should be with historians; those crafting presidential narratives should be more cognizant of the role of presidents in education.

But I just checked Decision Points, George W. Bush’s 477-page memoir. NCLB, one of his greatest accomplishments, gets a four-page treatment. By contrast, stem cells, Iraq, Afghanistan, and The Surge each gets its own chapter. Bush’s work on health issues in Africa also gets a full chapter.

Apart from the brief discussion of NCLB, K-12 only gets three other nods: two are passing references to NCLB and the other is a paragraph related to the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina.

There is much to chew on here, but I’d like to linger on one aspect. Many ed reformers have bemoaned that education has barely appeared on the radar screen of this year’s presidential race. Usually our community accepts this fact with a shrug, acceding that, of course, in 2012 the economy and jobs should be at the forefront.

The failure of the “ED in ‘08” campaign is usually attributed to the massive attention given to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What I’m wondering—actually suggesting—is that there will always be something that will cause presidential campaigns and presidential administrations to focus on things other than education. And that something will almost always be foreign relations-related.

If you doubt this, just keep in mind that President Bush, getting to write history for himself, gave PEPFAR five times the number of pages as NCLB.

And recall that when one of the giants of our sector recently sought to get more attention paid to education reform, she did so by arguing that K-12 schooling is a national security matter.

Perhaps I’m missing the boat here. Maybe you’re familiar with presidential biographies that spend more time on K-12. Maybe Race to the Top changed everything, and the biographies of President Obama and his successors will dedicate more ink to this subject.

Or maybe we ought to concede the point, spend little time trying to get presidential aspirants to talk about K-12, and, instead, aim our sites at governors, state legislatures, and mayors.

At very least, we’ll stand a better chance of increasing the return-on-investment of our affection.

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