President John F Kennedy

In this post I will discuss the activities of President Kennedy as he struggled to get his bills passed by an unfriendly Congress. The next post will examine how President Lynden B Johnson learned from his predecessor and avoided his mistakes.

The Southern Democrats, who were highly instrumental in foiling President Eisenhower’s school construction aid bills, did the same to President John Kennedy, when in 1961, shortly after his inauguration, he proposed a large-scale package of general aid for school construction as well as teacher salaries.1

This was in keeping with his campaign promises in which he had named six main issues on which he wished to focus. Education was the third of this six. In addition, he raised the issue of education very often during his election campaign, especially with regards to the increase in teacher’s salaries. From this it could be concluded that education was quite high on his agenda.

Although all this would suggest that President Kennedy was very devoted to the cause of education, there has been some debate as to how concerned he really was. Hugh Graham2 observes that while Theodore Sorensen3 claims that the one domestic subject that mattered most to Kennedy was education, Sorensen’s chief lieutenant, Myer Feldman, believed that Kennedy had no deep personal concern for public education.

Graham says that Feldman thought that Kennedy’s major concern was in the training of the mentally ill because of tragic personal circumstances. According to Graham, Feldman believed that Kennedy’s “accelerating commitment to federal aid as a presidential candidate and as president owed more to practical politics than to the kind of bedrock emotional commitment that drove the former schoolteacher, Lyndon Johnson”4.

It appears, though, that this is a very unkind view of Kennedy since, as was mentioned before, as soon as he entered office he proposed a large-scale package of general aid for school construction, and it is well known that he took an interest in educational problems associated with urban poverty.5

Carl Kaestle6 seems to agree with Sorensen when he says that “Kennedy had long supported the growth of federal aid to schools.” He further claims that President Kennedy had supported federally subsidized school lunch programs since 1946 when he first ran for Congress.

In addition to all this, during his fourteen years in Congress, he had proposed several bills to provide for school construction, instructional materials, and many other bills that provided service to schools. Feldman’s view of Kennedy appears therefore to be somewhat warped and very unkind to someone, who, although he was unable to secure any major legislation on education, was one of its staunchest supporters.

As soon as he was elected to office, President Kennedy immediately set about fulfilling his campaign promises regarding education. He set up an education task force headed by Frederick L. Hovde, who was at that time the president of Purdue University.

Apart from Mr. Hovde, this high-powered committee also consisted of such prominent names as Francis Keppel7, Dean of the Harvard School of Education; Alvin Eurich, a vice- president of the Ford Foundation; Russell Thackery, executive secretary of the American Land-

Grant Colleges Association; John Gardner, president of the Carnegie Corporation; and Benjamin Willis, superintendent of public schools in Chicago. This was indeed an august body with authority to speak knowledgeably on matters of higher education.

It was unfortunate though, that President Kennedy did not see it fit to have representatives of the conservative, southern Democratic, Catholic Church, or NAACP positions on the committee. This appears to have been a grave oversight on his part.8 For this oversight he paid a high price.

The Commission recommended over $9 billion in grants and loans over the next five and a half years. Of this amount $5.84 billion was to go to public schools only in the form of grants to the states9. Graham believes that the report envisaged a massive and permanent role in education, with some aid to private and parochial schools in higher education, but no aid for them in elementary and secondary education.

The President was not too pleased with the extremely high cost envisaged in the report and felt that the press would attack him. His worst fears were confirmed when on February 7, 1961, two weeks before his inauguration, the report was released to the press.

As was expected the conservative press was highly critical of the proposal. However, the most scathing attack came from the Catholics. Graham quotes the New York Times, 18 January 1961, which reported that Cardinal Spellman savaged the report, complaining that no American child should be denied the federal funds “which are allotted to other children which are necessary for his mental development because his parents chose for him a God-centered education.”10

President Kennedy made valiant efforts to have his election promises fulfilled, but he was confronted by obstacles at every turn. A month after his inauguration he recommended a three- year program of general federal assistance for public elementary and secondary classroom construction and teachers’ salaries.

He emphasized, however, that no funding would be allocated for the construction of church schools nor for church school teachers’ salaries. This recommendation met with a combined opposition from the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), Southern Democrats, and many of the Republicans in the House.

After a great deal of negotiation and compromises, a much watered-down version was introduced later in the year. That too was defeated by the combined opposition. It was “denounced by Catholics as discriminatory, by the National Education Association (NEA) as woefully inadequate, and by the House Republicans as a railroad job.”11

Graham, in the Introduction to his book The Uncertain Triumph, lamented the lack of success on the part of the Kennedy administration regarding federal general aid for education. He says that “the Kennedy administration pressed vigorously for federal aid during 1961-63, but the political sources of objection to the various forms such aid might take became so locked into intransigent patterns of resistance and mutual veto that the Kennedy program was widely branded by contemporaries as a ‘fiasco.’”12

Thus, many historians recognize the difficulty that President Kennedy faced in attempting to fulfill his election pledges.

In the next post I will show how President Johnson succeeded where President Kennedy failed.


1. New York State Education Department, Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2004: A Brief Synopsis, 2006, 13.

2. Graham, The Uncertain Triumph, 1984, 3

3 Theodore Sorensen was appointed Special Counsel and adviser to President Kennedy in 1960. He has written extensively on the presidency and foreign affairs.

4. Graham, The Uncertain Triumph, 1984, 3
5. Graham, The Uncertain Triumph, 1984, 3
6 New York State Education Department, Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2004: A Brief Synopsis, 2006, 13
7 Francis Keppel later served as US Commissioner of Education (1962-65) and was instrumental in developing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) 1965. 2

8. Graham, The Uncertain Triumph, 1984, 11.

9. The grants to the states were specifically for school construction, teachers’ salaries, and any other appropriate educational purposes.

10. Graham, The Uncertain Triumph, 1984, 13.

11. Graham, The Uncertain Triumph, 1984, 24

12. Graham, The Uncertain Triumph, 1984, xviii