George W. Bush wanted to be known as “the education president,” and so did his father, George H.W. Bush. Jimmy Carter established the Department of Education, President Obama is heavily invested in reforming public education and other presidents were too.

So which U.S. president was “the best” for public education?

The website of “Learning Matters,” the nonprofit media production company focused on education and run by John Merrow, recently asked that question to a number of scholars and other people, allowing each of them to define “best” in their own way.

Here are excerpts of the responses, which you can see here in full:

Kenneth Wong, education chair at Brown University and director of Brown’s Urban Education Policy Program.

“Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan have each mobilized the nation behind its education vision. As a former teacher that saw poverty in public schools in Texas, Lyndon Johnson passionately promoted federal involvement in equal educational opportunity. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 not only launched the system of federal grants-in-aid in low-income schools, it was also a central part of the president’s War on Poverty. Johnson’s vision was to address poverty with greater access to schooling opportunities, thereby enabling all students to become participants in the work force and full citizen in our democracy. The 1965 ESEA continues to shape its contemporary configurations, including Improving America’s Schools Act in 1983 and No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

“Ronald Reagan entered the White House with the intention of abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, introducing school prayer, and tuition tax credits. None of these became reality. Instead, Reagan was remembered as the advocate of the recommendations of his commission that issued the widely cited report, A Nation At Risk. At a time when the federal role in education was largely measured in terms of funding support, Reagan elevated the importance of school performance. Because of Reagan’s support for the NAR’s recommendations, federal education policy has expanded to incorporate both fiscal inputs and outcome-based accountability, including NCLB and the current debate on its reauthorization.

“In short, President Johnson crafted a purposeful agenda for federal engagement in education that remains relevant today as poverty continues to hinder our society’s progress. President Reagan further pushed that federal agenda to accommodate to global competition. I would consider Johnson and Reagan as number one and two most important education presidents.”


Steven Mintz, director of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center at Columbia University.

“...The presidents who established a vital federal role in education were Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson.

“The first cabinet level office devoted to education — the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare - was established in 1952, shortly after Eisenhower’s election to office. It was during his terms in office that the federal government began to promote increased educational opportunities for students with disabilities and to provide aid for training special education teachers. The launching of the first Earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union led Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act, to fund programs in science, math, engineering, and foreign languages.

“Johnson shifted the focus of federal education efforts to assisting economically disadvantaged children. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided aid to schools to fund compensatory education programs designed to equalize educational opportunity. In 1968, the Johnson administration began to provide aid for bilingual programs to assist non-English speaking students.”


Christopher T. Cross, chairman of Cross & Joftus, LLC, an education policy consulting firm.

“... The unlikely duo of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were the driving forces to put education on the national map in a significant way. Bush did it by convening the Charlottesville Summit in September of 1989, Clinton by securing passage of the Improving American’s Schools Act as an amendment to ESEA and the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, both within a few months of each other in 1994. What Bush had begun, with Clinton’s support as then-governor of Arkansas, Clinton saw to fruition.

“The significance of these actions is that they did cast the die for accountability in the use of federal funds, made an atttempt at national assessments in math and reading, and did create national goals for education.”


Jim Guthrie. senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute.

“There have been twelve modern, post-FDR, Chief Executives. Three — LBJ, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush — qualify as legitimate education presidents...

“The principal criterion for fame in the education field is that you shift the paradigm. You change the public and policy perception of and conversation about schools in a significant and lasting manner. You can accomplish this goal through multiple means. You can sponsor and orchestrate enactment of a bill, make speeches, support a movement, start a bandwagon, use the bully pulpit, spotlight a problem, or provide incentives or impose penalties that alter how the public sees schools, how policymakers perceive improvement opportunities, and how professional educators pursue their practice.”


Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative.

“We have had presidents who would like to be considered great ‘education president,’ but I do not think we have yet had one who deserves the title....

“A great education president would use the bully pulpit to call us to re-imagine what will be required to ensure high levels of competence and character in all our young. He or she will help us think our way beyond tinkering with repeated cycles of school reform to ask what changes in American society are necessary to make equal educational opportunity a reality. John Dewey once argued that in a utopia there would not be schools. Might he have been right? We need a president who is not afraid to ask that and many other questions.”


Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.

“Several presidents could claim the mantle of being an ‘education’ president. Thomas Jefferson and Millard Fillmore both founded state universities. Jimmy Carter signed the final legislation establishing an independent Department of Education. Yet, one chief executive stands out as the most significant and influential in history. A teacher himself, from a little town in south Texas, President Lyndon B. Johnson made education a national priority more than any other president. Historian and LBJ biographer Robert Dallek noted that he had an “almost mystical faith in the capacity of education to transform people’s lives and improve their standard of living.”


Thomas Alsbury, professor of educational administration and supervision at Seattle Pacific University and Director of the University Council for Educational Administration Center for Research on the Superintendency and District Governance.

“I would (a) prefer to identify the most ‘influential’ president in terms of education as opposed to the ‘best’ and (b) choose presidents who can be more singularly and directly linked to creating an influential educational initiative. For these reasons, I choose a president from the modern era that, I believe, is also the most influential of all time: Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961). Eisenhower laid the foundation for federal involvement in education as we know it today. He created the cabinet-level Department of Health, Education and Welfare from whence came the Department of Education. In addition, he infused a tremendous amount of resources into education, creating the National Defense Education Act of 1958 that added significant funds for science and mathematics education after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The Act provided additional funding for all levels of education and guaranteed that each state would continue to manage its own educational system. President Eisenhower also enforced the desegregation of schools following the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, sending troops to escort black students into their all-white schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.”


Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

“Almost 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that paved the way for generations of Americans to further their education at colleges and universities. The Morrill Act of 1862 was a land-grant bill that funded the creation of colleges across this nation. At first, the primary focus of these institutions was military tactics, agriculture, and engineering. But once the war ended, these universities and colleges re-imagined their purpose, opening their doors to working-class men and women. For this, Lincoln should be saluted for understanding that the road to building a stronger democracy lay in the education of its citizens.

“Who is the best ‘education president’ of the modern era?

There are two presidents’ whose actions changed the course of American education forever.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to send units of the U.S. Army to Little Rock, Ark., to protect the nine African-American students attending the all-white Central High School in 1957, sent a strong message to the entire nation that school desegregation was the law of the land. “The Little Rock Nine,” who were previously denied entry to the school by Arkansas’s governor and the state’s National Guard, attended classes guarded by Army soldiers. Eisenhower once wrote: ‘There must be no second-class citizens in this country.’

“President Lyndon B. Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act made segregation illegal in public schools, libraries, and businesses including restaurants and hotels. Johnson followed that landmark legislation with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act, both signed in 1965. Together those three pieces of legislation have ensured that all of America’s children — regardless of their racial, ethnic, or economic background — have equal access to a quality education.


Larry Cuban, former high school history teacher, superintendent, and professor at Stanford University.

“Four facts convinced me to vote for LBJ as the ‘best’ education president. Here they are:

“FACT 1: Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the federal role in schooling had expanded dramatically since 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), particularly Title I. No Child Left Behind (2002) is the latest of the federal reauthorizations of ESEA.

“FACT 2: ESEA focused national attention and took action for the first time on the connection between poverty and low academic achievement. Education was a key component of LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” His administration initiated Head Start, Upward Bound, the Job Corps and dozens of other efforts in the late-1960s.

“FACT 3: Presidents Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have converted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of the Great Society from a poverty-based federal “entitlement”program (mainly through Title 1) into a standards-based accountability program that expanded testing and established rules for acceptable academic performance touching every one of the 14,000-plus school districts that received federal dollars. No longer a poverty-reduction effort, ESEA is now a testing and regulatory machine that identifies and punishes failing schools.

“FACT 4: As a federal regulatory machine to raise academic achievement and end the gap in test scores between poor and non-poor children, it has failed. That failure is because the expanded federal role had to rely on a state and local infrastructure that was unable to reverse the persistent failure of schools to reduce either poverty or inequality in distribution of wealth. State and local districts lacked a coherent curriculum, a technical capability for assessment, and well-trained teachers. Moreover, the federal government contributed less than a dime out of every dollar spent on schools and states perpetuated a funding scheme that gave fewer resources to the most needy students.


Kay Ann Taylor, associate professor, Foundations of Education (College of Education) & American Ethnic Studies (College of Arts & Sciences), Kansas State University.

“I continue to wait for the ‘best education president.’ ”


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