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See Government Grow: Education Politics From Johnson to Reagan

September 13, 2008

By McCandless, Amy Thompson

Davies, Gareth See Government Grow: Education Politics from Johnson to Reagan Lawrence: University Press of Kansas 387 pp., $39.95 ISBN 978-0-7006-1532-2 Publication Date: September 2007 Most historians of American politics characterize the 1970s and 1980s as decades of “sustained reaction against Great Society liberalism” (1). Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan advocated steep cuts in federal spending and regulation, and public opinion appeared to favor less interference by the federal government in local affairs. When it comes to education, however, these perceptions are not borne out by the facts. As the title of Gareth Davies’s study on education politics suggests, federal spending and regulation grew, not shrank, in this period. If anything, Davies contends, the 1970s and 1980s saw “the decline of antistatist conservatism” (281) and set the stage for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Gareth Davies is a lecturer in American history at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. His publications have traced the fate of Great Society policies after Johnson’s presidency. His book From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism was published by the University Press of Kansas in 1996; his recent articles have examined Nixon’s school desegregation policies and Reagan’s pragmatic conservatism. Davies cites his debt to the late Hugh Davis Graham, whose “work on civil rights, immigration policy, and education documents the inventive and determined ways in which activists within and without the government kept the banner of reform aloft during the 1970s” (278). See Government Grow explores this “dynamics of policy innovation” (6) in education politics.

Instead of a chronological narrative, Davies employs a series of case studies to demonstrate the continuation of “liberal” educational policies after 1968. Although federal aid to education was a part of Eisenhower’s National Defense Education Act of 1958 and Kennedy’s fourteenpoint education package of 1963, Davies labels Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) “The First Education President.” By making the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 part of his war on poverty, LBJ was able to distribute federal impact aid to more than 4,000 school districts, giving the localities a vested interest in federal education policies and spending. Concerned by the growing cost of the Vietnam War, Johnson tried to scale back educational allotments in the later years of his presidency, but Congress was averse to discontinue popular programs.

Presidents Nixon and Ford both pledged to cut federal expenditures on education; instead, spending per pupil increased by 250 percent. Nor did they reduce federal regulation of education. During their presidencies, the federal government forced localities to integrate their schools and to provide an appropriate education for handicapped children. One reason for reform politics’ persistence after the Johnson years, Davies believes, was the shift in educational initiative from the White House to Congress and to the courts. Despite the advent of Republican presidents, federal bureaucrats remained sympathetic to the Great Society and its civil rights legislation, a “new breed of lawyer-reformer” (193) emerged, junior Congresspeople employed subcommittees to “wrest power away from the conservative Dixiecrats” (189), and the education lobby became more sophisticated. Whether it was school integration, bilingual education, school finance reform, or education for handicapped children, “reform politics was . . . shifting from the unyielding, majoritarian world of legislative politics to the potentially more propitious terrain of Warren Era judicial politics” (197). With the exception of Jimmy Carter’s establishment of the Department of Education in 1979, presidents “left little imprint on education policymaking after 1965″ (222).

The difficulty of reversing public policy can be seen in Ronald Reagan’s efforts to eliminate the Department of Education. Not only did he fail to fulfill this election pledge, but he eventually increased expenditures on all education programs. In addition, A Nation at Risk, the Education Department report published at the end of his first term, inspired calls for national standards of educational proficiency, calls that would further expand federal oversight of education.

See Government Grow would be a provocative text to use in a political science or educational history class. Davies’s case studies immerse the reader in the complicated process of federal policymaking and separate the rhetoric from the reality. Because the emphasis is on the “dynamics of policy innovation” rather than “policy implementation, or . . . program evaluation” (6), the average layperson would probably find the analysis difficult to follow at times. Those looking for a narrative overview of educational policy would probably be better served by Joel H. Spring’s The Sorting Machine Revisited: National Educational Policy Since 1945 (Longman, 1988). For those preferring an insightful analysis of the 1970s and 1980s, however, Davies’s monograph is the seminal study of the era.

AMY THOMPSON MCCANDLESS

College of Charleston

Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Summer 2008

(c) 2008 Perspectives on Political Science. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.