The Great Society and Opportunity Lost

President Lyndon B. Johnson in an undated photo (Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum/Reuters )

Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s spending initiatives have not paid off with any improvement in education.

In 1964, most people would have been excited to receive a signed picture from the president. But a woman known to history as “Mrs. Marlow” did not want Lyndon Johnson’s autograph.

She wanted clothes for her family. And food. “All we want is a decent chance for our children,” Marlow wrote to Johnson. Marlow felt she deserved as much because Johnson made a much-publicized visit to her family earlier that year, using the Marlows as an example of an impoverished family that Johnson’s “Great Society” programs could help.

If money was the answer, she was in luck. Johnson was about to open the spigots of federal spending like never before in the areas of education, health care, and welfare, promising that Washington would improve schools and lift families out of poverty.

Today, decades and trillions of dollars later, parents like Mrs. Marlow are still waiting for results. Johnson’s programs and their legacy have proved to be a curse on taxpayers and low-income families.

Head Start, the federal pre-kindergarten program for low-income children launched under Johnson, has had no lasting learning gains for enrolled students. What’s more, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found Head Start centers inflating enrollment numbers by doctoring student applications. Taxpayers have spent more than $240 billion on the initiative since its launch in 1965.

Washington has spent $2 trillion on K–12 schools since 1965, yet there has been no improvement in actual student learning for disadvantaged students compared with their peers. The achievement gap between children from low-income families and wealthier students was the equivalent of four years of learning decades ago and remains that size today. There has, however, been a notable increase in the bureaucracy. The number of administrators has increased 137 percent since the 1960s.

Today the federal government originates and services 90 percent of all student loans, spending $150 billion annually on loans and grants. Tuition at public four-year universities has increased 213 percent (after accounting for inflation) since 1987. Meanwhile, a slightly smaller proportion of students from families in the bottom quartile of the income distribution graduate from college today, the very students Johnson’s loan programs were supposed to help.

By any measurable indicator, the Great Society has been a bust for students.

To make matters worse, special-interest groups have captured many instructional materials and steered classrooms away from content-based teaching and toward subjective analyses of race and oppression. Schools are not helping students become productive citizens.

Want proof? The 2019 Annenberg Public Policy Center Civics Survey found that more than one in five respondents could not name any branch of the U.S. government. One-quarter could only name one branch, which means nearly half of adults cannot even begin to explain how our government operates.

Fortunately, not all is lost. A greater reliance on charter schools — public schools that operate independent of traditional school districts and base their curriculum on great works of literature — would certainly help. So would education savings accounts — K–12 private-learning options offered now in five states, which allow families to customize their child’s education experience according to the student’s needs. Another solution: Income Share Agreements, college-payment options under which businesses and universities help students cover postsecondary costs. These ISAs help students get a degree without making the Faustian bargain of a federal loan.

Better learning options are within reach, but lawmakers, taxpayers, and families must confront the failed legacy of the Johnson-era programs. The U.S. Department of Education, created in 1979 after Great Society programs became too much for scattered federal offices to bear, has not given children more opportunities to succeed in school or in life.

The department is overdue for sunset, and voters on both sides should be prepared to support this idea. Evidence demonstrates that low-income children — the very children Washington promised to help — are no better off today in school than they were when Johnson made his promises to Mrs. Marlow 55 years ago.

In one of Mrs. Marlow’s letters to Johnson, she wrote, “Since your poverty campaign visit to our home on May 7, we haven’t had a peaceful day. . . . We feel we were cast in the middle of a Democratic and Republican election war.”

Too many families and children have watched opportunities slip away amid political squabbles over taxpayer spending for failed programs. And Mrs. Marlow’s example is illustrative of Washington’s failed responses to our nation’s education woes. After months of correspondence about the Marlow family’s ongoing poverty and public embarrassment, Johnson’s assistant, Bill Moyers, wrote back and promised “assistance.” The day after Moyers’s letter, Mrs. Marlow received $200 from someone who wished to remain anonymous.

Lindsey M. Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, is the director of Heritage’s Center for Education Policy. Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst specializing in education issues at Heritage. They are the editors of the new book The Not-So-Great Society.

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