Lyndon Johnson: The Educator Who Became President

LBJ Teacher

For a follow-up on a piece about Earl Warren as a man who had a great influence on education, I decided to write about arguably the most successful educator in American history, the one who ended up becoming President.

Lyndon Baines Johnson is best known as one of the most consequential politicians of the 20th Century. He was one of the most powerful congressional leaders in history, and as President, pushed significant civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, while also winning one of the largest electoral and popular vote mandates ever. What is less known is that he started out as a teacher, enrolling in Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University. He would teach in three high schools in the San Antonio area, including a year spent with Mexican-American children at the segregated Welhausen School in Cotulla. He was a teacher of public speaking at Sam Houston High School, before politics became his primary career, as he worked on a congressional campaign, and became a congressional aide. He was briefly head of the Texas National Youth Administration, and lobbyist for the Houston Teachers Association, positions he used as a launching pad for his first bid for Congress.

As a consequential President with strong congressional majorities, he was able to pass several significant bills through Congress that would have an impact on American education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included provisions which made segregation more difficult, and authorized greater involvement of the US Attorney General’s office in fostering school integration. The Higher Education Act of 1965 provided greater funding in the form of scholarships and low-interest loans for college students. The Elementary and Secondary Education act of 1965 provided greater funding to schools with a high percentage of children from high-poverty households, and provided greater resources to state departments of education. Later amendments during his administration provided support for handicapped children, and the implementation of bilingual education programs.

In a 1965 interview with Robert McKay, President Johnson recalled his experiences as a teacher, and how well he got to know the students “I associated with them a lot socially. I would go into their homes and I would be with their family and would take them into my home, particularly the leading debaters and the ones that were on the teams.” Several of his students would go on to work in his congressional staff. He came to understand the significance of educational opportunity, telling McKay “If every child born could acquire all the education that their intelligence quotient permitted them to take, God only knows what our gross national product would be. The strength that we would add to our nation militarily, diplomatically, economically is too large even to imagine.” He thought that federal spending on education could eliminate poverty by reducing the problems associated with a lack of vocational training, and these were significant priorities for him as a political leader.

Last week, I wrote about Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, a man who had no significant background in education, but would go on to have a tremendous positive impact on our schools. Johnson had a similar level of influence, but one difference was that he would be informed by his experiences as a young teacher. It’s a reminder that we don’t know what will happen to our students, or even where our coworkers will end up. I believe President Johnson was correct in his assertion that the federal government has a significant role to play in ensuring educational opportunity for more Americans, although he did have some misplaced confidence in how quickly things could change, and there were some errors in implementation.

I don’t think we can remove education from politics because it is such a massive undertaking, it is so important, and we spend so much money on it. Determining how to allocate finite resources is one of the purposes of politics, and teachers might not have the background in finance to make these kinds of decisions (On the other hand, the same can certainly be said about the people who do make these kinds of decisions.)

While there are excesses and some false readings, standardized tests are going to be necessary in some form as these can relay important information. It’s important to know how graduates from different schools compare.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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