In this campaign, Federal aid to education has become a substantive issue. The simplest and most lurid reason for advocating such a program is the frightening challenge with which the Soviet Union presents us in this field. As Averell Harriman has observed, however, the United States has an obligation to promulgate social advance without waiting for a prod from Moscow.
Therefore a much more realistic basis for seeking federal aid to schools lies in the fact that despite an annual need for 110,000 new classrooms, the U.S. has continued school construction at a pace of 70,000 rooms a year. As vice-President Nixon is quick to point out (and he is sincere), this is a good many schoolrooms, and this is a very great country. But mathematics indicates (and it, too, is sincere) that the school shortage is leaping up by over a hundred rooms every day.
The inadequacy of the country's half-hearted construction program is only one aspect of the familiar failures to which Federal inactivity in this area has led. The underpaying of teachers and professors has not only hindered educational progress by diverting able men into more lucrative industry jobs, but was responsible for the low status of pre-Sputnik education.
Even these reasons for supporting Federal school aid are essentially negative; they are based on shortcomings of local and state-controlled education. There are, meanwhile, positive considerations which deserve attention. Most prominently, Federal aid can become the nation's most effective tool in implementing the Supreme Court's integration decision.
Opposition to Federal activity is centered around this point. If the government can use education as a lever to further integration (which, it must be remembered, is the law of the land), it might also use it to further more insidious aims; and the whole spectre of government-regulated thought control comes into focus. But there is a great distinction between the uniformity of educational standards and Constitutional guarantees which the government would seek to implement, and uniformity of thought. If the aid were to be channeled through the states, for example, state authorities would determine all educational policies except those which clash with the Constitution.
One argument advanced for Federal aid to education is that local and state control often manacles education more than the Federal government. Religious groups and super-patriotic groups often proscribe textbooks and determine teacher appointments; local school boards often stifle any raising of controversial issues by faculty. This argument certainly does not justify aid from the central government, but it does point up the fact that pressures can be brought to bear on any level of government. Local responsibility in the form of state control of funds will stop dictation of education policy by the central government, but safeguards against local encroachments are equally necessary.
It is heartening to see education receiving somewhat more than its perennial election year homage. In proposing to extend Federal aid to the realm of teachers' salaries, Senator Kennedy expressed the sensible opinion that Federal control amounts to a risk, but not a bogeyman. It is a risk that can be handled by legislation safeguarding local autonomy over the use of Federal funds. And it is a risk that we have been paying too highly for not taking.