Howard A. Dawson, 84, a retired official of the National Education Association's department of rural education who helped draft the first legislation providing federal aid to education, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his Chevy Chase home.

Before coming to Washington in 1934, Dr. Dawson was a rural schoolteacher and school superintendent in his native Arkansas. He also served as director of research for the Arkansas State Board of Education and helped develop the state's rural school consolidation.

He headed the rural schools relief program for the old Works Progress Administration and served as a special assistant to the commissioner of education before joining the NEA in 1935 as director of rural service.

When he retired in 1960, Dr. Dawson was executive secretary of the department of rural education.

He was a recognized authority on the reorganization of public school districts and state and federal financing of public schools and an early supporter of programs to improve educational opportunities for minorities.

Dr. Dawson served on a number of White House committees, including the first White House Conference on Rural Education in 1944.

In 1974, Dr. Dawson received the Distinguished Service Award in Educational Administration from the American Association of School Administrators.

He was a visiting professor and lecturer at more than 20 colleges and universities and wrote a number of books on educational administration.

Following his retirement, Dr. Dawson worked on educational planning and research projects for Educational Consultants Inc., a firm he helped to establish.

Dr. Dawson earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in educational administration from George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tenn.

A member of Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church since 1935, he was a leader of the Men's Sunday Forum there.

His wife, the former Elizabeth Sutton, also is an education specialist. His first wife, the former Mamie Watson, died in 1969.

Besides his wife, of the home, survivors include two sons, U.S. Tax Court Judge Howard A. Dawson Jr. of Bethesda, and Dr. Shelton P., of Eden, N.C., a brother, Roy E., of Murfreesboro, Ark., and six grandchildren.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Howard A. Dawson Memorial Fund at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark.