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Crisis in Education


For the second straight year, President Kennedy's aid-to-education bill is getting smothered in the Congress. The Administration passed the word two weeks ago to Congressional supporters to abandon their efforts to extricate Rep. Edith Green's aid-to-higher-education bill from the House Rules Committee, and instead to push for college aid through Kennedy's omnibus education measure. As the President knows, this is the equivalent of pushing a dead horse. Even if the Administration could succeed in getting its bill to the floor of the House, opposition from Roman Catholics to the provision for aid to secondary schools would doom it once more.

The real tragedy of the aid-to-education fight, however, is not the impending defeat of the omnibus bill, but the President's refusal ever to concede it a chance of victory. Faced with a continuing national crisis in education, he has consistently eschewed the one approach which might prod the Congress into doing something about it.

The President should seek direct public support for his program through a national televised speech and through a series of White House meetings with representatives of business, labor, and professional groups. Such an appeal is the only way to cut through the tangle of selfish opposition and political inertia that each year obstructs the passage of an education bill. If an effective lobby for aid to education does not exist, the President's job must be to create one.

An education bill is very different from the medicare bill or a public works measure. It produces no dramatic, visible results, like the opening of a new highway or a successful orbital flight. It does not directly benefit any broad segment of the population except students, and students do not vote. It has no powerful and well-oiled financial interests behind it--the professional education lobby, such as it is, remains fragmented and ineffectual.

A national measure which benefits "only" the nation, aid to education must depend for its support on those citizens who know the plight of this nation's schools firsthand, or who have read about this problem in the New York Times or The Saturday Review. These individuals are not now numerous enough to get any education bill passed, and they are not likely to be in the future, unless the President himself convinces people that his program deserves the "high priority action" that he requested in his message to the Congress.

The reasons that this country needs federal aid to education are not so abstruse or arcane that they cannot be explained to the American people. Indeed, in a nationally televised speech the President might effectively put to use the blackboard-and-pointer method he has employed in the past. Certainly it ought to be easy enough to show, with appropriate graphs and models, the millions of students in over-crowded classrooms, the expected doubling of college enrollments by 1970, the fourfold difference in per capita expenditures on education between some states, and the continued inadequate level of teachers' salaries in many parts of the country.

Such a demonstration might actually convince people that the threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba is not the only crisis which the United States faces. And it could appeal to their self-interest by pointing out that emphasis on training, rather than retraining, programs can prevent much of the social and economic hardship that unemployment causes.

If nothing else, a strong Presidential appeal for aid to education would reassure its advocates that Kennedy believes in his own program, and that it is the opposition of the Congress, not the passivity of the President, which is blocking the bill. Until this appeal is made, Kennedy will continue to sanction, directly or indirectly, the political hatchetry that each year kills aid to education on Capitol Hill.

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