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Education Policy of the Republican Party
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on July 29, 2004
Copyright 1996-2008 www.Criticism.Com
This essay appears in The Encyclopedia of the American Democratic and Republican Parties, published by the International Encyclopedia Society. The encyclopedia won the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1997.
1 The Early Days
2 New Legislation Bolsters Education
3 Conflict Intensifies
4 The Inter-Party Rift Grows
5 An "Education President" without Initiatives
7.1 Republican Party
7.2 Democratic Party
8 Bestselling Books on Republican Party
Through most of its history, the Republican party has alternated between outright opposition to federal involvement in education and limited support for it. The party, however, began its early years by backing federal educational assistance -- in fact, Republicans were among the first U.S. politicians to propose significant federal aid for education. But by the 20th century, the party had shifted its position to a general skepticism that at times gave way to limited support. Even at the times when backing limited aid, though, the party retained its stipulation that in administering the aid, the federal government must in no way interfere with state and local control of schools. There have also been occasional periods of strong Republican support for federal educational assistance, particularly during the 1960s, often in response to social crisis or threats to national security.
Within the party, Conservative Republicans have in general taken a stronger stance against federal involvement in education, while it has been the moderate Republicans who have most often leaned toward supporting it. Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, for instance, began his political career has a moderate Republican who increasingly worked to pass legislation supporting education. Eventually, Morse switched to the Democratic Party -- and became an even stronger voice for educational legislation.
In the party's early years, many Republicans not only backed but also proposed laws to assist education. In fact, among the first attempts to render such aid was made by a Republican: Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont. The Morrill Act, introduced in 1857, sought to donate land to states and territories for colleges. Morrill's measure was vetoed in 1857 by Democratic President James Buchanan, who maintained that it unconstitutionally interfered with states' rights, an objection that would later be adopted by the Republican Party and used against proposals offered by the Democrats.
While the objection that federal involvement in education interferes with states' rights has often been used by the Republican Party, the constitutionality of federal aid for public schooling is considered by many to have been settled by precedence. Nevertheless, some in the Republican Party, no doubt, still consider it a legitimate objection. Legally, the argument seems to hold little validity. Indeed, even in the early years of the battle over aid for education, the constitutionality argument failed to persuade Congress. A resubmitted Morrill Act was passed in 1862 and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, himself a Republican.
Constitutionality aside, the proper role of the federal government in public education was to increasingly become a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans. The two parties would put forth various arguments for and against such aid. The most prominent arguments were over the need for federal aid for education, the appropriate extent of federal involvement in education, whether the federal government can and should try to help equalize education, and whether the federal government could afford to offer its help. But before these arguments became more fully enunciated, the education issue, long at the margins of political debate and legislation, had to evolve into one of greater prominence.
After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson, a so-called War Democrat nominated by the Union Party, the name adopted by the Republican National Convention of 1864, approved a federal Department of Education in March of 1867. The department was soon demoted and renamed the Office of Education from 1870 to 1939, when it was subsumed under the Federal Security Agency, later the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Congress reestablished the Department of Education on May 4, 1980.
In 1870 Republican President Ulysses S. Grant urged Congress to support primary education with grants, making him the first president to actively back federal aid for education. Grant further implored Congress to use all its power to encourage education. During the year of Grant's request, the congressional struggle over the issue began when George F. Hoar, a Republican representative from Massachusetts, introduced a bill to provide general aid to public schools. Although Hoar's bill never came to a vote, it served to focus attention on the issue.
Two years later, in 1872, the Republican Party began using federal aid for education in its campaign literature, which exhibited the party's support for federal educational assistance, a stance that would be reversed by the 1920 presidential election. In 1876 -- the first year in which federal involvement in education was mentioned in a major party platform -- the Republican Convention of 1876 vowed to support a constitutional amendment forbidding the use of public funds for sectarian education. In 1879 Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes continued Grant's policies, urging Congress to formulate measures that would supplement local funds with federal aid. In 1880 James A. Garfield, also a Republican, captured the presidency with a campaign platform that included national backing for education. The Republican who took the helm after Garfield's death, Chester Arthur, backed federal educational aid in the speeches he made to Congress, as did Republican Benjamin Harrison after being elected president in 1888.
In 1876 the Democratic Party took a view that the party and its candidates would repudiate after having remained nearly silent on the issue for several election years: the platform declared that the establishment and support of the public schools belonged exclusively to the states. Then, as the Republican platforms of 1880 and 1884 and the Republican presidents of 1880 and 1888 endorsed national support for education, the Democrats kept quiet. Then from 1880 to 1920 the Democratic Party platforms made little mention of the subject. After the 1888 presidential election, the Republicans also dropped the issue, which did not resurface significantly until the party platform of 1920 expounded a different view: It endorsed support for vocational and agricultural training. The Democrats, on the other hand, now favored federal aid to education. The parties' respective positions had begun their reversal.
During the early 1920s, Republican President William G. Harding opposed a cabinet-level Department of Education, validating the Republican Party's shift on the issue.
But then in 1924, another slight alteration occurred. The Republican Party's platform exhorted the establishment of a cabinet department of education and relief. As president, Republican Calvin Coolidge paid little attention to the issue, taking place largely in Congress at the time. In 1928, the Republican Platform merely cited the enrollment increases at colleges and technical schools as signs of the Coolidge administration's success.
Meanwhile, the 20th century brought social crises that manifested themselves in bills, occasionally proposed by Republicans, for new legislation to assist education. The rate of selective service rejections, for instance, prompted demands for aid in 1918, just as the rejections during the World War II draft rekindled the debate over federal aid. World War II also brought legislation to supplement education in communities affected by the war effort. And World War II prompted an extensive program that gave millions of returning veterans the money to attend college: the G.I. Bill, passed in 1944 under the official name of the Service Man's Readjustment Act. After World War II, a teacher shortage inspired the aid proposals of the late 1940s. The Depression of the 1930s led to emergency aid to education. And the baby boom of the 1950s spawned school construction bills. The Cold War and the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in 1957 helped spur the National Defense Education Act. The civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s encouraged legislation to help equalize educational opportunity. Yet to a degree beyond that established by any one of these social crises, initiatives -- including some from Republicans -- emerged for general federal assistance for education, though they were not to arise in earnest until the 1930s.
Republican President Herbert Hoover, however, in a remark encouraging to those in favor of federal aid to education, said in his inaugural address: "Although education is primarily a responsibility of the states and local communities and rightly so, yet the nation as a whole is vitally concerned in its development everywhere to the highest standards and to complete universality." Hoover's Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, soon disillusioned those previously encouraged by the president's inaugural remark by rejecting both federal aid and the establishment of a Department of Education. President Hoover, responding to the controversy over the federal government's proper role in education, appointed a committee, the National Advisory Committee on Education, to study the matter. In October of 1931, the committee unveiled its report, the first comprehensive survey of federal educational activities. The panel's recommendations included creating a Department of Education, having the Office of Education conduct further studies to determine whether federal aid was needed, and eliminating educational grants for vocational education. The committee concluded that if vocational education was to be subsidized, it should be done through general federal grants exercised at the discretion of the state. Hoover choose to heed only the suggestion to end the vocational program, but his proposal was quashed by Congress.
During the election years of 1936 and 1940 a hush fell over the issue of education, with the Republican platforms denouncing the New Deal administration in general as usurping states' rights and "failing America." The 1944 platform, again blasting the New Deal in general, mentions that the federal government should avoid involvement in education to keep schools "free." The postwar era ushered in a period of federal involvement of education that expanded the government's role to proportions previously unseen. Party platforms in the years after the war reveal that the Republican Party generally opposed educational assistance, though it supported limited aid in 1956 and 1960. Meantime, the Democrats consistently favored federal aid to education.
Yet after the war, certain elected Republicans campaigned in favor of limited assistance, and some of these Republicans possessed such power that other party members in Congress followed. For example, between 1943 and 1947 Republican Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, a member of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, began to lean toward the cause of education. Senator Taft's inclinations were highly influential. Many committee senators, as well as many in the rest of the Senate, were willing to heed the demands of Senator Taft, considered an expert on education policy. Known as Mr. Republican for his conservative views, Senator Taft was the chairman of the committee from 1947 to 1949. But Senator Taft's backing of education was not without its intra-party conflicts. For instance, he often clashed with Republican Representative Fred Hartley of New Jersey, who led the House Labor and Education Committee from 1947 to 1949. As Taft and Hartley battled it out, the Republican Party's plank, as contained in the platform of 1948, vaguely favored "equality of educational opportunity for all and the promotion of education and educational facilities."
By the election of 1952, the issue had moved further into the spotlight, and the Democratic and Republican parties took sharply contrasting positions. The Democratic Party refined its position of the previous elections by calling for aid for school construction, teachers' salaries, and school repair. The Republican Party countered with the following platform statement: "The responsibility for sustaining this system of popular education has always rested with local communities and the states. We subscribe fully to this principle." Following five terms and 20 continuous years of Democrats in the White House, newly elected Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, holding firm to his party's platform, strongly opposed federal support for education. The Eisenhower administration asked Congress to postpone action on the issue until after the White House Conference on Education, scheduled for 1954. A majority of the conference participants endorsed federal education aid and a large majority recommended construction aid to meet a shortage of classrooms. The conference's recommendations helped shift the Eisenhower administration's position. In 1955, 1956, and 1957 President Eisenhower endorsed, with tempered enthusiasm, federal measures of limited magnitude to facilitate school construction. The president was willing to back school construction because it strictly limited the amount of money to be allocated and because it reduced the likelihood of federal control over schools.
Meantime, by 1956 the Republican Party itself turned toward supporting education, lessening in the process some of its differences with the Democrats, who continued promoting an array of educational programs. In its platform, the Republican Party cited the action by their elected officials that created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. And at the convention, the Grand Old Party praised the Eisenhower administration's school construction initiative and vowed to renew party efforts to ensure its approval.
In 1958, however, the Eisenhower administration revoked its backing of school construction, instead urging Congress to approve the National Defense Education Act. With the Republican president advocating the measure and Congress sanctioning it with bipartisan support, its passage signaled an expanded role for the federal government in education. The expansion was prompted in part by concerns over the country's national defense and rate of scientific advancement. These concerns had arisen after the Soviets' launched Sputnik the previous year and in response to the Cold War in general. The act supported science, math, and foreign language programs in public schools.
With the next presidential election, partisan controversy over education gathered with renewed vigor. Although the platforms of both parties supported federal aid in principle in 1960, the kind of support they had in mind was different. The Republicans maintained that primary responsibility for education should remain with local communities and the state, but endorsed selective federal assistance for school construction. The party platform also voiced support for efforts to equalize educational opportunities and to strengthen vocational schooling. But the party stopped short of endorsing the wide-ranging assistance program advocated by the Democrats. In arguing against such a program, the Republican platform restated what had by now become one of its standard objections: "Any large plan of federal aid to education, such as direct contributions to or grants for teachers salaries can only lead ultimately to federal domination and control of our schools." The Democrats called for generous financial support for, among other educational programs, teachers' salaries and construction of classrooms and other facilities. The contrast between the two parties' policies blossomed into a major domestic issue of the presidential campaign -- a campaign that also compelled the two parties in Congress to solidify their positions.
Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1960, seized upon federal support for schools and attempted to make it a major issue in the election. He blasted President Eisenhower for giving only limited support to the issue and attacked the Republican candidate for president, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, for backing only a limited construction program and for referring to federal aid for education as "too extreme." After the election, which the Republican presidential ticket lost, the Kennedy-Johnson administration's vigorous advocacy for education and a sympathetic Congress resulted in several major measures that provided schools with federal aid.
The rift between the parties only grew during the 1964 presidential campaign, which was characterized by vast differences in ideological positions among the candidates and their parties. Presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican from Arizona, maintained that support for education was a step toward subordinating state and local governments to administrative divisions of the central government in Washington. He also held that there was no educational problem requiring federal aid. Senator Goldwater has been one of the most prominent and unrelenting voices against federal intervention in education on constitutional grounds. The 1964 platform of the Republican Party did allow tax credits for those burdened by the costs of higher education.
In contrast, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was a strong advocate of the strengthened role of the federal government and the strongest supporter of federal aid for education yet to occupy the White House. Johnson's platform promised additional and expanded aid to supplement those programs enacted by what had been dubbed the "Education Congress of 1963." By the election of 1968, the Republican Party again shifted to a more moderate position, citing inadequate education in urban areas and pledging to bring about high-quality education for all. The platform backed grants, loans, and work-study programs for students as well as continuing to favor tax credits to help offset the cost of college for needy students. The platform advocated expanded programs for preschool children and suggested the establishment of a commission to study educational quality.
In 1968, Republican Richard M. Nixon was elected president. Among the actions he took on education was telling Congress in 1970 to establish a National Institute of Education. A bill creating the institute became law in 1972. President Nixon also sent Congress a proposal to halt court-ordered busing. Instead, Nixon proposed to allocate $2.5 billion to improve school quality while preserving neighborhood schools.
In 1972, the Republican Party, in agreement with its president, opposed busing for racial balance. The party's platform statement also lauded the 60 percent increase in the amount spent on elementary and secondary education by the Office of Education during the past four years of Republican rule. Such spending -- and Republican Party backing of it -- was to fall during the Republican administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush that began in 1980, the next year in which a Republican sat in the White House after the Nixon-Ford administration.
During the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter, the tuition tax credit emerged as an issue. Introduced in January 1977 by Republican Senator William Roth of Delaware and backed by many other Republican senators, the tax-credit bill was originally intended to set up a credit for tuition paid for postsecondary schooling. The bill was expanded to cover tuition spent on private elementary and secondary schooling by Senator Robert Packwood, an Oregon Republican. In 1978 a bill to furnish students with financial aid was offered in response to the tuition tax credit and became law. The measure, however, did not end but only postponed additional Republican calls for a tuition tax credit.
Taking office in 1980, President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, redefined the education policy of the federal government, in effect ending 30 years of liberal educational spending that often received at least limited bipartisan backing. President Reagan successfully directed the focus of federal education policy away from funding programs and toward using moral suasion to hasten change. He significantly reduced the government's role in education and decentralized many programs. He failed, however, to fulfill his campaign promises of abolishing the Department of Education, passing a school prayer amendment, and instituting a tuition tax credit.
In 1985, after Reagan's first Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, resigned, conservative William J. Bennett took his place. Bennett announced that he would use the post as a "bully pulpit" to push conservative policies and values. Bennett argued for a Western Civilization-based core curriculum and against multicultural and other liberal programs.
Republican George Bush, formerly Reagan's vice president, was elected president in 1988, partly on the plank of being "the education president." In general, President Bush, though slightly less conservative than Reagan, continued Reagan's policy of devolution in education. The first Bush budget, however, did contain some new initiatives. For instance, it earmarked money for the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act and for magnet schools. Republican Calls for educational reform during the era advocated institutional competition among schools and adequate training for entering the job market. President Bush also renewed the call for a tuition tax credit.
In the elections of 1994, Republicans gained control of Congress, and quickly set out to slash funds from various education programs, arguing that the government's deficit necessitates cutbacks. Republican Representative Newt Gingrich's Contract With America further targeted education and job training for budget reductions as Congress and the Democratic Clinton administration clashed over balancing the budget.
In the Republican primaries of 1996, the issue surfaced over whether parents should be given school vouchers to send their children to private, public or religious schools. Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, and Dick Lugar have come out in support of vouchers, arguing that they would allow parents greater freedom in deciding how their children should be educated. Pat Buchanan has said he would only favor vouchers if there were no "government strings" attached. Lamar Alexander supports scholarships that students can use at public, private, or religious schools.
The positions of the presidential candidates of 1996 illustrate how Republican positions toward education have changed with the political and social climates of the times. The party's general position has moved from its early proposals of support to giving the issue little attention during the earlier part of the 20th century. After World War II, the party's position alternated between limited backing and disavowal of all support. The 1960s brought a time of expanded federal involvement in education, and many elected Republicans played a part in sanctioning the programs. The conservative presidencies of Reagan and Bush brought a renewed and intensified conservative Republican attack on federal education programs, leading to substantial cutbacks in many of the programs established during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. The Republican Party of the 1990s continues its call for less government on ideological grounds and less aid to education because of fiscal restraints. Continuing a long-running Republican demand of the 20th century, the chorus of current Republicans continues to stipulate that if the federal government does provide aid for education, it must do so without interfering with local control of schools -- and, increasingly, in the freedom of parents to do what they think is right for their children.
Johnson, Donald Bruce. National Party Platforms: Volume II, 1960-1976, Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Meranto, Philip. The Politics of Federal Aid to Education in 1965: A Study in Political Innovation, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1967.
Mitchell, Douglas E. and Goertz, Margaret E., editors, Education Politics for the New Century, Bristol, PA: The Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis, Inc., 1990.
Munger, Frank J. and Fenno, Richard F., Jr. National Politics and Federal Aid to Education, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1962.
Porter, Kirk H. and Johnson, Donald Bruce. National Party Platforms: 1840-1964, Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1966.
Spring, Joel. Conflicts of Interest: The Politics of American Education, White Plains, NY: Longman, 1988.
Tiedt, Sidney, W. The Role of the Federal Government in Education, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
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