The failed promise of LBJ’s Great Society


“Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal.”
- Lyndon Baines Johnson

When President Johnson unveiled his “Great Society” at the University of Michigan’s commencement on May 22, 1964, he proposed a vast and sweeping “creative federalism” to combat disparities in the educational and economic lives of Americans. He demanded “an end to poverty and racial injustice” and, in a country with incredible wealth, asked his audience “whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.”

All lofty goals, to be sure. But decades after the unfolding of the Great Society, experts today have concluded that the barrage of programs was a misguided attempt to solve some of society’s deepest issues, particularly those surrounding poverty and schools.

The notion then that poverty could be eradicated simply by infusing the education system with more cash and governmental backing still persists today. Yet education analysts say the idea is more antiquated with each passing year. While a person could expect to lead a comfortable middle-class life with nothing more than a high-school diploma in LBJ’s time, that reality has been supplanted with one where graduate degrees are necessary to enter the same echelon of society.

“There was a general mindset that you could solve poverty by improving education, and the way to improve education was to spread the access to education, and that meant more money,” says Dominic Brewer, a professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education. “Very simplistic. We’re so much more sophisticated now in that story at every point.”

Indeed, the private sector has responded with burgeoning school and community reforms in a new century that represent strides from the original ideas of the Great Society. Some 21st century reforms are built on LBJ’s ideas – early education for poor children, for example – but many more take decades of “best practices” research and bundle them in schools, customizing the programs for the specific needs of a school and its community. The result is, in some cases startling, producing schools altogether different from those even a decade ago.

The Great Society’s lofty mission

Johnson outlined lofty philosophical goals for renewing America's cityscapes and countrysides in his landmark Great Society speech that addressed employment, housing and education, and all of his new initiatives were backed by either dramatic expansions of existing government or the outright creation of massive new programs. Johnson understood the importance of education; a former school teacher in his native Texas, Johnson had seen the numbing effects of poverty on the Mexican-American children he taught in a rural school. But his vision for education remains the most unrealized of the Great Society programs because some experts believe it was simply too ambitious for the time.

The Great Society included two major pieces of education legislation: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act (HSA), both signed into law in 1965. ESEA, reauthorized in 2002 as the No Child Left Behind act, is described as “the main federal education law, outlining financial federal responsibility for the nation's public schools, which receive some form of aid under the statute. In its original form, the law laid out basic requirement for schools to qualify for targeted funding (e.g. “Title 1” schools receive money typically if 40% of their student body fall into the “low income” bracket as defined by the U.S. Census standard). It is renewed by Congress every five years and is called “No Child Left Behind” in its current form.

ESEA initially allotted $1 billion in targeted aid and also made permanent the Head Start program that bolsters Title 1 benefits for low-income areas by offering additional funding for low-income families that blur the line between education and social services.

The Higher Education Act offered assistance beyond K-12 education by offering federal funding and provisions for scholarships and low-interest student loans. It also established the National Teachers Corps (later re-established as Teach For America) to place qualified college graduates in low-income, poverty-stricken areas as teachers.

The essence of this legislation -- as it was when it was conceived and after 44 years of renewals and restructures -- is the idea that blanket infusions of cash from the Federal Government can adequately fill in 50 unique gaps in state education funding. The notion that throwing more money at school districts will somehow magically give impoverished children the ability to lift future generations out of their economic woes is ignorantly optimistic.

“Simply improving access to education by spending more on schools in clearly not the answer because we spend, I think three or fours times in real terms today what we were on schools than we were spending in 1960,” USC’s Brewer points out.

Reinventing U.S. schools

Brewer speaks of the rigidity found in the public sector of education today which prevents it from adapting to changing circumstances. By clinging to an antiquated structure, he says, the public school system has forced the hand of the private sector to lead the reform charge by creating new schools with more flexibility and innovation or introducing these reforms in existing schools.

“We still have this mindset that the adults should still be called ‘teachers,’ they should work for 30 years, they should be able to leave the ‘office’ at 2:47, that we should still pay them all the same regardless of subject or how good they are at teaching that subject,” he says. “I mean, none of these things make much sense in the world we live in now.”

Education experts speak of “the edges” of the U.S. public school system as the place where the hope for education lies.

“You see the public growth of provisions that are at the edge of government,” said Dr. Guilbert Hentschke, the chair in Public School Administration at USC’s Rossier School of Education. “I think of charter schools as an example,” along with the for-profit and not-for-profit organizations cropping up over the past 20 to 30 years in large cities and suburban communities where public school systems simply cannot provide the basic needs of their students. The final frontier in that respect is home-schooling, which used to be illegal but is now a growing alternative for parents that recently is equally as viable for getting children into top-tier institutions of higher education.”

In a state like California, where Proposition 13 has limited the growth of property taxes that support public schools, private and non-profit organizations have become critical.

Institutions such as The Wonder of Reading, an education non-profit, exist in large urban areas like Los Angeles, for example, working with multiple districts to redistribute some of the massive wealth of Angelenos to the public school system. They provide financing and coordination in renovating and restocking the libraries of public schools. But at a rate of 15 to 20 new libraries per year, the net impact in a district like the Los Angeles Unified School District with almost 1,100 schools is a drop in the bucket on an annual basis. LAUSD currently has 118 charter schools under it’s umbrella, according to their website, compared to 63 in 2005.

The innovation hasn’t stopped with charter schools. The Gates Foundation is using the vast wealth of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to bolster education through massive grants and rewards for innovative, out-of-the-box thinking in the field of education.

The government must mirror the type of initiative that the private and not-for-profit sectors is taking, but on a much more massive level in order to inject the public education system with new life, according to Brewer.

“Can you create incentives for really smart people to come into education, to start companies, to make it really easy for them to compete for services,” he asks.
“It’s the kind of thing we did with Sputnik with math and science. We could do it in education the same way, you could put a hundred million dollars on the table and say anyone who could invent something that will radicalize the curriculum and make teachers lives easier.”

“The extent to which schooling pays off is greater now than it’s probably every been,” says Brewer. “If you took the difference between a high school grad and a college grad in the 1970’s and look at the rate of return, the gap is much wider today,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have public schools, it just means that we don’t have public schools that look like the ones in the past,” he says.

Brewer says the government could use its resources – it contributes between 7 percent to 8 percent of a local school district’s budget -- by encouraging innovation built on flexibility, an idea Johnson himself alluded to in his blueprint for a new America. “The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work,” Johnson said. “It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”

Listen to the entire speech below paired with some stock images from the time period: