Nixon Leaves Mixed Legacy on Education, Family Issues

By Lynn Olson — May 04, 1994 6 min read
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Richard M. Nixon, who was buried last week in California, left a record in education that was as paradoxical as the man himself.

After he became President in 1969, he proposed deep cuts in federal funding for elementary and secondary education. Yet he wound up overseeing the expansion and entrenchment of the very programs he had hoped to consolidate.

He was a vocal opponent of student busing to achieve racial integration of schools. Yet the implementation of desegregation in the South proceeded more rapidly under his watch than that of his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mr. Nixon was famous for his distrust of intellectuals. But he created a stronger federal role in education research than had existed before.

His early domestic policies were both progressive and ambitious, including a plan for reforming welfare that foreshadowed the current debate. Yet he vetoed the most comprehensive child-care bill ever to pass through Congress, in terms that were both harsh and final.

This mixed legacy is reflected in people’s varied evaluations of his performance. “I would say that, on balance, he was a pro-education President,’' said Terrel H. Bell, who was the acting U.S. commissioner of education under Mr. Nixon and became Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration.

“Apathetic ... I think was fair to say was how Nixon felt about education,’' said John Brademas, a former president of New York University, who as a Democratic member of Congress chaired a subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee.

‘Unintended Effect’

Mr. Nixon’s first education budget, in the spring of 1969, proposed slicing many programs far below their authorized levels.

The effort backfired. “In a way, he helped the education community to rally around the programs and to get additional funding for them,’' recalled John F. Jennings, the chief education counsel for the Education and Labor Committee. “So he had an unintended beneficial effect.’'

A coalition of 80 education and labor groups formed the Emergency Committee for Full Funding of Education Programs. It launched an aggressive campaign to persuade Congress to increase appropriations for school aid. And, in 1970, Congress approved a $4.2 billion allotment for education that was nearly $1.1 billion above Mr. Nixon’s request.

In his history of American education, Lawrence A. Cremin noted that federal expenditures for K-12 and higher education jumped from $4.5 billion in 1966, under the Johnson Administration, to $13.4 billion in 1974, when Mr. Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal.

‘Not One Thing More’

But in education circles, Mr. Nixon probably was best known for his vehement opposition to mandatory busing.

Ever heedful of courting the conservative vote in the South, Mr. Nixon instructed his subordinates to “do only what the law requires, not one thing more.’'

In 1968, in Green v. New Kent County, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school boards had “the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary’’ to eliminate racial segregation “root and branch.’' Jack Greenberg, a professor of law at Columbia University who was then head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, recalled that the group “began filing motions all over the South asking for immediate desegregation.’'

The Nixon Administration wrote a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit urging it to slow the process. But in 1969, the Supreme Court specified in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education that school districts were to “terminate dual school systems at once.’'

In 1971, Mr. Nixon received another blow, when the High Court, in the case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, unanimously approved mandatory busing to overcome racial segregation. In a televised address on March 16, 1972, the President unsuccessfully called on Congress to impose a “moratorium’’ preventing the federal courts from ordering any new busing plans.

Yet, he persuaded Congress to allot $1.5 billion over two years to assist districts struggling with the ramifications of desegregation.

“That initiative was notable, particularly considering the political liability it involved,’' said Charles Radcliffe, then the chief minority counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee.

Despite “mixed messages from the White House,’' Mr. Bell said, the U.S. Office of Education was involved in desegregating more than 1,300 districts in the South.

Nonetheless, Mr. Greenberg said, Mr. Nixon “did not follow the letter of the law until he was compelled to. ... He resisted as long and as hard as he could.’'

Created Research Institute

In contrast, the 37th President was an unwavering booster of federal research and innovation in education. In a March 1970 address to Congress, he proposed establishing the National Institute of Education and the Experimental Schools Program to create “a bridge between educational research and actual practice.’'

Peter H. Gerber, the director of education programs for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who served in the institute from 1973 until its demise in 1985, said it “established education research as a national interest and as a federal function in a way that had not been established before.’'

But in setting up the N.I.E., argued David H. Cohen, a historian at the University of Michigan, the Nixon Administration contributed to a lasting problem. “I think it was just unwise to create an entity that promised that research could make a major contribution to social problem-solving,’' he said.

Although the Experimental Schools Program provided $55 million over five years to fund comprehensive, whole-school change, it “disappeared without leaving a trace,’' Mr. Cohen said.

During his tenure, Mr. Nixon also signed the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, which banned sexual discrimination on campus and established the forerunner of today’s Pell Grants.

And he transformed affirmative action into a results-oriented policy with numerical goals and timetables for federal contractors’ hiring of women and minorities.

‘Greatest Disappointment’

For advocates of a strong government role in children’s issues, perhaps the darkest day of the Administration came in 1971, when Mr. Nixon vetoed the “comprehensive child-development act.’' The bill would have laid the foundation for a nationwide network of child-care centers, established federal standards to preserve their quality, and provided money to train child-care providers and purchase facilities.

“That veto,’' said Edward Zigler, who was recruited by Mr. Nixon in 1969 to run the newly established Office of Child Development, “remains the greatest disappointment of my professional life.’'

That Mr. Nixon vetoed the bill was no surprise, but the harsh tone of the veto message stunned the bill’s supporters. Mr. Nixon said the bill would “commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing.’'

One observer suggested last week that Mr. Nixon’s largest legacy in education, broadly defined, may have been an inadvertent one.

“One of the great legacies of the Nixon Administration was the idea that the American press needed to do a much more serious job in educating the American people about the dangers of government,’' Mr. Cohen said.

“That’s a very big difference in public education writ large,’' he added. “I don’t think that’s a legacy that Mr. Nixon would celebrate, but it’s palpable.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 04, 1994 edition of Education Week as Nixon Leaves Mixed Legacy on Education, Family Issues


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