To the Editor:
The budgetary history of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration should make us pause before accepting the claim of Samuel Halperin, an assistant U.S. commissioner of education for Mr. Johnson, that if the former president were alive today, he would be “terribly disappointed” that funding for the No Child Left Behind Act is as low as it is (“What Would L.B.J. Make of NCLB Act?,” Federal File, Sept. 26, 2007).
Not only did appropriations for Title I lag well behind authorizations during the Johnson presidency, but the president himself never requested sufficient funding for the program. As a result, Title I funding remained level at slightly over $1 billion throughout his term in office, though what was then the Bureau of the Budget estimated in 1964 that the program required $5 billion to $10 billion to make a significant difference.
President Johnson’s budgetary restraint was only partly due to constraints arising from the escalation of the Vietnam War. It also stemmed from his commitment to commercial Keynesian fiscal policies that privileged cutting taxes on business at the expense of tax increases to fund social programs. This commitment was necessary to win political support for his Great Society programs. But because it limited, in the words of Michael K. Brown, a professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “the growth of the public sector relative to the private,” it forced the president to choose between guns and butter, ultimately precluding greater federal spending on education and other social programs and effectively ending his dream of a Great Society.
Whatever liberals in the Johnson administration may have hoped, this history makes it difficult to speculate with any degree of certainty about what the former president would do now concerning the budget for NCLB. What we can say with greater assurance based on this history is that George W. Bush is not the first president to sacrifice increases in education spending to the cost of fighting an ill-advised war and to a preference for tax cuts over tax increases to fund social programs. Unfortunately, I doubt he will be the last.
Professor and Chair
Department of Education, Culture, and Society
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as L.B.J.’s View of NCLB? The Answer Is Unclear