While U.S. presidents currently play an important role in creating and shaping educational policy in the United States, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1960s, presidents played a minor or nonexistent part in the creation of educational policy. This largely stems from limited federal involvement in education and a prevalent view during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that education was a state, not federal responsibility. This entry offers a brief historical review and discusses how presidents make policy in this area.
Beginning in the 1960s, presidents grew more involved in educational policy making, although interest varied across administrations. President John F. Kennedy spoke often about educational policy and proposed several bills, but it was not until Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that significant educational policy saw realization at the federal level. With the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act, both of 1965, President Johnson substantially changed the federal role in education.
While Johnson established a new model for presidential involvement in educational policy making, his next three successors did not follow suit. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter largely ignored education throughout the 1970s. Even that decade’s most significant educational milestone, the creation of the federal department of education in 1979, resulted not from President Carter’s leadership but from heavy pressure from the National Education Association.
It was not until the 1980s that education again played a significant role in the American presidency, but the policy ideas differed from Johnson’s. Ronald Reagan entered office vowing to reduce the federal role in education. He called for greater state responsibility and the dismantling of the Department of Education. His proposed policies included school choice, an amendment for voluntary school prayer (eventually the Equal Access Act), and block grants to states. With the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, a report commissioned by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, Reagan also called for educational excellence and reform in the form of a core curriculum, stronger school discipline, greater parental influence, and higher academic standards for teachers and students.
George H. W. Bush continued the momentum of these policies, particularly educational reform through school choice, greater state oversight of education, and academic standards. Through his educational summit with all fifty state governors in 1989, the latter policy received the most attention and eventually resulted in academic standards and assessments in nearly every state and a set of national educational standards.
These same standards became the centerpiece of President Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000, which became law in 1994. Clinton’s other major education policy, also approved in 1994, was School to Work, a program to provide high school students the opportunity to gain job-related skills. Although Clinton continued to focus on education throughout his terms, an opposition Congress elected in 1994 limited his ability to pass policies of any substance.
It was not until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 that another major educational policy (other than reauthorization bills) passed through Congress. In NCLB George W. Bush pressed for increased accountability, the closing of the achievement gap, a greater emphasis on reading and math, expanded school choice, and increased flexibility for state education agencies working under federal law; only the first three of these remained in the bill’s final version in significant form.
How Presidents Make Policy
This review of presidents and educational policy making demonstrates the vehicles typically utilized by modern presidents in shaping education. First, and by definition, legislation represents the most important function of educational policy making in the presidency. Through it, presidents can define terms, set agendas, identify priorities, and establish standards of accountability. However, the involvement of presidents in educational legislation differs significantly. Some play an active role in the creation and passage of policy, while others merely preside over bills passed on their watch.
Second, presidents set policy through budgets. Although budgets do not necessarily define terms and establish standards, they most certainly identify priorities and set agendas. For example, efforts to reduce educational spending or implement block grants to the states send a clear message and produce different effects than spending increases and programmatic and/or categorical funds.
Third, presidents shape educational policy through executive orders and vetoes. For example, President Carter issued executive order 12232 aimed at using federal resources to strengthen historically Black colleges and universities. However, because of their narrow scope compared to legislation, executive orders as a policy-making tool are restricted. The veto, too, is a limited means compared to legislation, but the ability to prohibit the passage of some pieces of legislation while allowing others unquestionably shapes the policy landscape.
Finally, presidents shape educational policy through rhetoric. With the “bully-pulpit,” presidents can champion some policy ideas over others, raise the nation’s collective consciousness about educational issues and priorities, and define and popularize obscure concepts. For example, until President Reagan championed it, school choice remained a largely unknown policy idea. Through his rhetoric on school reform, Reagan brought choice into the educational debate as a legitimate, albeit controversial, policy option.
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