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Top 12 Presidents to Influence Education

William B.C. Roberts

Top 12 Presidents to Influence EducationFor better or worse, here are the top 12 presidents to impact American education.

12. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

In 1994, President Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The Goals 2000 plan was ambitious, setting targets such as the “United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.” Although many of the goals set forth in the law have not yet been achieved, some experts feel that Goals 2000 a precursor to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program.


11. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

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During the late 19th century, white southerners passed state laws that made literacy a prerequisite for voting. The Harrison administration supported the Blair Education Bill, providing federal aid to teach literacy to blacks living in the south. Although Harrison’s education bill encountered resistance from Congress and never became law, it became clear that education would be an important component of racial equality.


10. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)

Like civil rights, the economy is often tied to education. Such was the case with the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which President Truman signed into law in 1946. This legislation was designed to simultaneously increase profits for farmers while providing low-cost or free meals to schoolchildren in need. Due to the program’s success, it was expanded two decades later.


9. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

While president of Princeton University, Wilson attempted to do away with the elite eating clubs where the school’s well-to-do students often congregated. It makes sense, then, that Wilson would become one of the first US presidents (perhaps the first) to successfully enact a federal aid package for education. Before federal funding, schools were funded exclusively at state and local levels. Wilson’s ideas for federal funding would influence several subsequent presidents.


8. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

President Johnson was the first president to officially mandate federal intervention in education. He established the first Department of Education in 1867, but his new department failed to take root. After the Civil War, US citizens were frightened by the perceived increase in federal power at the cost of states’ rights. By 1868, Johnson’s Department of Education downgraded to the much less powerful Office of Education.


7. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)

By the late 1960s, school integration in the south had slowed substantially in the post-Brown v. Board of Ed era. President Nixon addressed this issue soon after taking office. By 1970, less than 20% of black students attended an all-black school.  Nixon also signed the Education Amendments of 1972. This legislation is best known for Title IX, which requires all federally-funded schools to provide equal education & sports opportunities for girls and boys.


6. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)

Despite a military conflict in Vietnam, President Johnson enacted two impressive education policies. He created the Head Start program, which has served more than 22 million children since its inception in 1965. Johnson, a former teacher, also managed to secure federal aid for elementary and secondary schools – including parochial institutions.  By signing the Child Nutrition Act into law, Johnson also expanded Truman’s School Lunch Act.


5. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)

Although skeptical that the required programs could be properly funded, Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 into law. This legislation, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, continues to provide guidelines and funding to states for the education of special needs children.


4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

By 1940, FDR’s Works Progress Administration “had erected 4,383 new school buildings and made repairs and additions to over 30,000 others,” according to Jim Couch of the University of North Alabama on EH.Net.  In addition to those impressive statistics, Roosevelt signed into law the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, which is more commonly known as the GI Bill. The GI Bill helped millions of soldiers received vocational training and college educations.


3. George W. Bush (2001-2009)

As most modern teachers know, President Bush’s main legacy in education is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This law, signed by Bush in early 2002, focuses on issues such as education standards, test scores and school choice. Although some scholars say it is too early to tell if No Child Left Behind has been effective, many of today’s professional educators argue that this far-reaching law is both poorly written and underfunded.


2. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

In 1859, Congress passed a bill called the Morrill Land-Grant Act, but President James Buchanan vetoed the bill. After Lincoln took office, he signed a revised version of the bill into law in 1862. The Morrill Land-Grant Act provided federal land to each state, to be used in the creation of institutions of higher learning. Today, 76 land-grant universities are still educating American college students.


1. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)

In his two terms as president, Eisenhower laid the foundation of federal participation in education as we know it today. Eisenhower created the cabinet-level Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Decades later, President Carter split that department in two, creating today’s Department of Education.


Fueled by Cold War competition, Eisenhower infused tremendous federal funds into education. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Americans worried that the US was falling behind in areas such as science and mathematics. In response, Eisenhower enacted the National Defense Education Act of 1958. This legislation provided additional funding for all levels of education, gave money to some private institutions, and guaranteed that each state would continue to manage its own education system.


President Eisenhower also enforced the desegregation of schools following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In one instance, Eisenhower sent troops to escort 9 black students into their all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.


If you'd like to learn more about presidents in education, I'd recommend Maurice Berube's American Presidents and Education.


Who is your favorite President that impacted American education? Share in the comments section!

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