Rooseveltian Lessons for the Reagan Administration

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Franklin D. Roosevelt's faith in education stands in stark contrast to Ronald Reagan's massive cuts in the federal education budget. As we observe Roosevelt's 100th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his watershed election this year, supply-side economists are emphasizing the need to increase the supply of available capital, without concern for the supply of people educated to use that capital productively.

Yet President Roosevelt believed the education of citizens to be a crucial means of restoring national vitality. His huge New Deal programs gave education a key role in relieving economic distress, a role that the Reagan Administration has not pursued. F.D.R. also ushered in the era of the G.I. Bill, which the Reagan Administration, to its credit, would like to revitalize as an aid to military recruitment. Further, he outlined two useful criteria for federal aid to education, criteria that are only partially accepted by the Reagan Administration.

Clearly, economic relief was the first priority of the 1930's. One major program intended to offer relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), employed 2.5 million young men in conservation work at 2,600 camps from 1933 to 1942. Early in the program, the War Department, which ran the camps, reluctantly acknowledged that most of the enrollees had dropped out either of elementary school, high school, or college and that, in fact, many were totally illiterate. As a result, in December 1933, the CCC added an academic component, which taught vocational and academic subjects as well as citizenship, health, and safety.

Also in 1933, the New Deal began aiding college students through a program of part-time employment that was subsequently incorporated into the new National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1935. To help students stay in school, the NYA paid for part-time jobs ranging from manual labor to clerical work to research. For youth not in school, it provided guidance, training, placement, and recreation. By the time the agency closed in 1942, it had assisted one million young people and had set an important precedent for the federal government to help individuals acquire a broad range of skills and knowledge that would benefit not only themselves but also the country.

The NYA was housed in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which also began in 1935 and ended in 1942. But in addition to programs designed to meet the immediate needs of youth, the WPA addressed the problems of the unemployed by hiring them to build and repair a plethora of public projects, including 6,000 schools. The Public Works Administration (PWA), which hired the unemployed and others, handled larger construction projects, including 12,700 schools.

Through these projects, both the WPA and PWA helped public educational institutions get back on their feet. At the same time, the WPA aided education in other important ways. It hired 40,000 unemployed teachers to conduct literacy, occupational training, and nursery-school programs for nearly three million people. And it sponsored lectures, art projects, and research.

In addition to the programs of the New Deal that were aimed at economic relief, President Roosevelt's contributions to education extended to relief from the disruptions of war. He urged Congress to pass the veterans educational benefits under the G.I. Bill because, he said, "The money invested in this training and schooling program will reap rich dividends in higher productivity, more intelligent leadership, and greater human happiness.... We have taught our youth how to wage war; we must also teach them how to live useful and happy lives in freedom, justice, and decency." He signed the bill in 1944, after Congress passed it unanimously.

Thirty-eight years, 18 million veterans, and $53 million later, the Reagan Administration is proposing to revitalize the G.I. Bill's educational benefits to help make the military more appealing to volunteers--a tribute to the policy of F.D.R. But the G.I. Bill's impact went far beyond the veterans it helped. It affected all levels of schooling because it paved the way for funding of education in the future by allaying fears that federal assistance necessarily meant federal control.

From 1938 to 1945, F.D.R. often advocated increased federal funding for education, and his approach included two premises not unlike those of President Reagan. Because Roosevelt abhored the poverty that he saw in many American schools, especially rural ones, he proposed that the federal government provide financial support for the nation's poorest school districts. But because he knew that many people feared federal intervention in local affairs, he also proposed that the government provide only procedural guidelines for expenditures and that it exercise no control over curriculum and instruction in those districts.

This dual approach has found little acceptance in the history of American education. Except for the early land grants, almost all federal aid to education has involved various restrictions on schools' internal affairs. The nation's most comprehensive program of aid, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provided the aid to poor school districts that F.D.R. wanted, but it also included the federal control that F.D.R. eschewed. Last year, when the Reagan Administration prevailed upon Congress to pass the Education Improvement and Consolidation Act, under which the federal government will make block grants to states and localities and will substantially deregulate the Title I program, it approached Roosevelt's position on limiting federal control. Although these plans have promise, the sizable amount of money that the Administration has cut from all education programs suggests that it sees little relation between education and the nation's economic health.

If this policy of deregulation and budget-cutting continues, the President will preside over a highly deregulated program that does not significantly aid the education of the needy, and that, in effect, minimizes education as a national concern.

Roosevelt understood that education is a national concern. He did not attempt to lessen the federal government's responsibility in this area by dredging up the old argument that education is a local function, as some are doing today. He recognized that the federal government had been involved in funding education since the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, two years before the Constitution was adopted.

Education has been a national matter throughout the history of the Republic, as numerous Presidents, including Jimmy Carter, have acknowledged. Accordingly, the federal role in education has grown over the years, with programs initiated and inspired by Roosevelt accelerating that growth.

F.D.R. understood that many localities in the 1930's were doing little for education because their resources were exhausted. In many state and local governments those resources are exhausted once again. To place more financial responsibility upon them comes menacingly close to "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor."

In 1936, William F. Russell, then dean of Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote, "Bad times should be busy times in education.... When automobile accidents increase, the casualty companies do not on that account cease their propaganda for safety in driving and teaching the rules of the road; but when people are out of work and incomes are cut, the tendency is all in the direction of decreasing expenditures for education. This is poor business, and it will prove to be false economy. When seas roll high and tempests blow, we need new sails and strong rigging."

The supply-siders' ideal of a rising tide that will lift all boats may turn out to be high seas and tempests to those who "need new sails and rigging," and the Reagan Administration does not seem to appreciate this.

But just as Ronald Reagan does not acknowledge the crucial importance of education as a national priority, Franklin Roosevelt clearly did. It is time we recognized his contributions to education.

Vol. 01, Issue 19, Page 17-18

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