I don’t normally write such long blog posts, but I got carried away as I was preparing some background notes for the upcoming Texas Forums community conversation on “What is the 21st Century Mission for Our Public Schools?” at the LBJ Library on November 14 from 9:00 – noon. When you are organizing a program on education on behalf of the institution that bears the name and houses the records of the “Education President”, it is easy to get sucked in! You may not have time to read all of this, but please, before you move on, consider joining me for the upcoming forum!
Date: November 14
Time: 9:00 – noon
Topic: What is the 21st Century Mission for Our Public Schools?
Where: Meet in the lobby of the LBJ Presidential Library 2313 Red River St. Austin. We will tour the special exhibit, School House to White House about the varied education experiences of the last twelve Presidents
Register here so we’ll have enough food and materials!
During our forum, we will consider three overarching questions related to the purpose of public schools:
- Should schools focus on preparing students to be successful in the workplace?
- Is the purpose of public schools to prepare students to be active and responsible citizens?
- Should we invest more of our energy in helping each student make the most of his or her abilities?
In the meantime, here’s a little light reading about the Education President, President Johnson.
The Education President’s Example
During his presidency, President Johnson backed more than 60 bills and programs to benefit education These bills were designed to ensure that children entered school ready to learn, that they had a variety of learning opportunities, that there was a continuum of learning from pre-school through higher education, and that all children regardless of race would have equal access to educational opportunities.
Milestone legislation and programs include:
- Head Start
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act,
- the Higher Education Act,
- Vocational Education Act,
- the Library Services Act, and
- the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
His passion for education should not come as a surprise. After all, much of his early thinking about public policy and the role of teachers and government came from his experiences in the classroom. After receiving his degree from After his second year at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, President Johnson dropped out of school for a year to serve as principal and teach fifth, sixth, and seventh grades at Welhausen School, a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, TX a small farming and ranching community half way between San Antonio and Laredo. This Texas town, where most of his students were Hispanic and poor, left an indelible imprint on the young teacher who, in signing subsequent bills as Mr. President would often refer to “the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School.”
This experience made education a particularly personal issue, and long before he wielded the power of the presidency, he used his personal resources to improve the lives of the children he taught. In October 1928, he wrote to his mother requesting 200 packages of toothpaste for his students. You can see and download the letter from the “early years” section of the Presidential Timeline at www.presidentialtimeline.org.
In November 1966, President Johnson returned to the Welhausen Elementary School in Cotulla where he shared his early memories of the multiple duties he performed as their teacher and principal – coach of the boys’ basketball team, debate coach, song leader, playground supervisor, and even assistant janitor. When the school could not afford playground equipment, President Johnson used his first month’s salary to invest in “those things for (as he affectionately called them) my children“. Even in his early days, President Johnson was the example of how passionate and creative individuals in a village can roll up their sleeves and help raise a child. Read his complete remarks to the students of Cotulla, TX here.
In addition to the deep concern and abiding fondness he expressed for “his” children, he also believed that they could succeed, given the right opportunities. In their description of his early life experiences, the LBJ Museum of San Marcos reports that “he brought strict discipline into his classroom and organizing his young students to participate in debate, declamation, spelling bees, and physical education — opportunities they had never had before.” Their narrative of Lyndon Johnson, the teacher continues, “He had enormous energy, a great capacity for work, the initiative to create projects for his students, and the ability to persuade others to assist with those projects.”
In short, there are signs that the infamous “Johnson Treatment” was born from his experience in a remote, under-served, impoverished Mexican-American community for the benefit of its children.
The timeline of his contribution to education during his presidency is breathtaking and that part of his legacy remains, but is often overlooked and never fully appreciated.
Despite the number of public schools named for President Johnson, it wasn’t until 2007 that a federal building was legally named for him. While a long wait, it was a fitting tribute. The Education Building in Washington, D.C. now bears his name under a law signed on March 21 by President George W. Bush. Thankfully, Mrs. Johnson was alive to savor the day even though she was unable to attend the ceremony. In her gracious, public statement, Mrs. Johnson noted,
This will be a fitting tribute to Lyndon who worked so hard to make life better for so many, and – were he alive – I can think of nothing that would please him more! Lyndon wanted so much for the children of our country to have a healthy and rewarding life, and he believed that education was the key to fulfilling that hope. His life was about education, and I believe that he would have wished to be remembered as the “Education President.”
This sentiment was echoed by daughter Luci Baines Johnson who was present at the signing:
Education was at the heart of my father’s career in public service. He felt that it was mankind’s passport out of poverty and our greatest hope for tomorrow.
But the work is unfinished. According to the research conducted by E3 Alliance here in Central Texas, the gaps that President Johnson witnessed at Cotulla still exist and are pervasive in our own community. Consider these sobering facts:
- Economically disadvantaged students are consistently at the low end of achievement gaps. In eight Central Texas districts, over 60% of the student population is economically disadvantaged.
- Texas has the fastest growing child population in the nation, a trend that is projected to continue.
- The greatest increase in children is among the Hispanic population which will grow from about 26% to 35% of the Central Texas population over the next few years. A rapidly growing proportion of future students will be economically disadvantaged and Limited English Proficient.
And President Johnson had it right when he equated education with the path out of poverty. Just consider the economic impact of a substandard education on individuals as well as on the regional economy. If you think your spiraling 401K, IRA or SEP Retirement account sucked your breath away, consider this:
- Students who do not complete high school earn significantly less per year than students who complete college – $28,500 versus almost $70,000. In other words, over an average lifetime, the high school graduate will earn over $1 million more than a student who drops out. Throw in a college degree and the wage-earner has another $2 million to show for themselves.
- We could lose 85,000 jobs in Central Texas and face declining expenditures of over $40 billion. That’s with a “B” for billion and that calculation was made before the current economic crisis.
But there is good news. As we have witnessed through the recent years of forums on education conducted by Texas Forums, E3 Alliance and Austin Voices for Education and Youth, there are individuals and organizations in the Central Texas region who may not agree with all of President Johnson’s policies, but they share his lifelong concern for the education of all children and they are willing to roll up their sleeves to do something about it.
The history of Texas Forums’ work on education with outstanding partners is rich and has been productive resulting in community-wide action plans for nine school districts and a regional blueprint for change with four priorities that are embodied in the unfinished legacy of President Johnson. Below are the four goals of the Blueprint for Educational Change in Central Texas adopted on January 23, 2008 along with some examples of President Johnson’s earlier contributions to these goals. The historians among you can freely add to this list using this link as a starting point!
Goal 1: All Children Enter Kindergarten School Ready
Operation Head Start announced May 18, 1965
Goal 2: Central Texas Eliminates Achievement Gaps while Improving Overall Student Performance
President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Amendments (PL 89-750) on November 3, 1966 which included:
- a provision that schools could use the national average “per student
expenditures” if the national average was higher, a benefit to poorer
- a new program to aid in the education of handicapped children.
- the transfer of adult education activities from the Office of Economic Opportunity to the Office of Education in Health, Education and Welfare.
- the first appropriation of funds for the National Teacher Corps.
On January 2, 1968, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act Amendments of 1967 (PL
90-247) established bilingual education programs for non-English speaking children and provided more funds for special education for handicapped children.
Goal 3: Students Graduate College-and Career Ready and Prepared for a Lifetime of Learning
In addition to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provisions designed to prepare students for college, President Johnson signed a number of bills to support higher education, most notably The Higher Education Act (PL 89-329) which he signed at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos, Texas (now Texas State University at San Marcos. It was the first U.S. Congressional approval for scholarships to undergraduate students. Again, his experience at Cotulla was a guiding factor as President Johnson sought to ensure that college would not be closed to anyone just because they were poor. The Act
- included insurance on student loans that had been proposed by President Johnson while he was a Congressman
- transferred the work-study program to the Office of Higher Education
- created the National Teacher Corps which was designed to improve elementary and secondary education in needy urban and rural areas. Teams consisting of an experienced teacher and several young college graduates were sent in to strengthen local school programs.
Goal 4: Central Texas as a Community Prepares Children to Succeed
At this point, I could cite, the Veterans in Public Service (VIPS) program inclusion in the Teacher Corps that was inaugurated by President Johnson in a White House ceremony on July 30, 1968. His signing of the Education Professions Development Act (PL 90-35) which extended the Teacher Corps is another example of how President Johnson sought to include the entire community in the education of our nation’s children. Programs to support the arts and humanities, volunteerism, experimental education programs like Upward Bound, White House Conference on Education, and quotes from numerous speeches are more than adequate to illustrate President Johnson’s deep commitment to the community and the nation’s responsibility to its children.
But no legislation speaks louder to his personal commitment to education than his own examples. His personal encounters, his touching memories of his childhood classroom which he cited in his speeches, and his frequent visits to schools inspired a nation to care about the education of our youth.
It was personal triumph and tribute, not just a photo op, when he was joined by his first teacher, Mrs. Kathryn Deadrich Loney as he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in Stonewall, TX. (One can argue that Mrs. Loney was his second teacher as his own mother Rebekah taught him to read by the age of four.)
But perhaps the greatest example that President Johnson never left his “teacher roots” behind and never forgot that we all share the responsibility for educating our youth was in his frequent visits to the schoolchildren in Stonewall, TX. At his 100th birthday celebration on August 27, 2008 and at conferences since then, the notecard included in the small bag of jellybeans says it all:
“Stonewall children called him “Mr. Jellybean” because that’s what he brought on his visits. They didn’t know he was the President and “Head Start” was one of the proudest creations of his presidency. Head Start has four decades of human success stories behind it and flourishes as one of the most enduring monuments of the LBJ years.”
We don’t all get to start national programs that endure for decades. We might not take it upon ourselves to distribute candy to children who (by early accounts in his letter to his mother) do not have ready access to dental care. We might not be called to the classroom. But if we each believed, as President Johnson did, that even the poorest children in a small town like Cotulla are “my children” we would surely find a million little opportunities every day to make a difference.
President Johnson gave us the earliest blueprint for educational change, and the communities in Central Texas that have held forums on closing the education gaps and preparing today’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs are continuing that legacy. History really does have something to teach us about ourselves, our potential and our future, and sometimes our present helps us see our past with greater clarity and appreciation.