The historic interpreter at Lyndon Johnson's boyhood home -- part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park -- ended her presentation with an anecdote about how each night, her dad would say, "Remember, Lyndon loves you."
Certainly any resident of Johnson's original congressional district -- which elected Johnson on his promise that they would get electricity -- must've felt loved when they put away their kerosene lamps, cumbersome battery radios and ice boxes. But by the time Elizabeth, the park ranger. was hearing about Lyndon loving her, Johnson had become president.
History has not been kind to the foreign policy legacy of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson not only inherited the Vietnam conflict from his predecessors, Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, but he escalated it liberally. The shadow of this war may have caused many to forget that, "Johnson signed more education bills into law than any other president. He signed the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965."
According to the Social Welfare History Project, this law providing additional assistance to school districts with poorer kids went into effect rapidly even though -- or perhaps because -- Congress had struggled to pass comprehensive legislation leveling the educational playing field in the United States since they first started trying in 1870.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- part of Johnson's War on Poverty -- was "developed under the principle of redress, which established that children from low-income homes required more educational services than children from affluent homes." It implied what many felt was obvious, homes where the parents had limited educations, worked longer hours, or had fewer resources -- like books and other school materials -- started their kids off with a disadvantage to the kids that came from more affluent homes. It wasn't just that the poorer neighborhood schools had less resources, it was that the kids they came in contact with had farther to go to catch up.
The price tag wasn't cheap. The one billion dollars allocated by Congress would be more than 7.2 billion today. But Johnson believed the law would help, "five million children of poor families overcome their greatest barrier to progress: poverty."
The poverty rate in 1965 was right about what it is today. Last year the "Associated Press surveyed more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus: The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent. Several predicted a more modest gain, but even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965."
Education assistance -- along with other war on poverty measures like food stamps and Medicaid -- had for a time stemmed the tide and helped pull the numbers of impoverished folks down. But when the economy crashed in October of 2008 poverty statistics went through the roof.
Increased unemployment and low wages have led to record numbers of homeless families. In fact, Hear Us, a homeless youth advocacy agency claims that, "Not since the great depression have we seen so many homeless families on the streets of communities of all sizes and economic compositions." Homelessness adds a layer of difficulty to the initial challenges posed by poverty.
Kids without homes -- more than a million according to the U.S. Department of Education -- present unique challenges. The U.S. Census Bureau figures put the number of school districts in the country at a little more than 14,000. Each district -- by law -- must have a homeless liaison. These folks facilitate the education needs of kids who aren't just poor. In some cases, children study in the back seat of a car, in a house without electricity, or from the corner of a noisy shelter. The liaison's make sure the kids have a ride to school, they see to it that the child stays in the school that they were attending with the parents lost their home, or get them immediately enrolled in a new more suitable school. Homeless kids also automatically qualify for federal school lunch programs.
A recent count done of McKinney Vento homeless identified students put the number of kids without housing in Texas at about 95,000. "We've got about 10 percent of the nation's homeless kids. And for some homeless kids, a school is all the stability they have," explains Barbara James, Project Director for the Texas Homeless Education Office (THEO). "Their friends are here. Their teachers care about them. And moving them away from what may be their only stable situation, doesn't help them learn."
President Johnson predicted that every dollar spent on a poor child's education would be paid back 10 fold by the child's increased productivity as a well educated adult. The son of a teaching mom, he saw educating young people not just as a moral imperative but as an economic engine, which may or may not have motivated Lyndon to love them. But, from spending a little time with THEO one thing is certain for homeless kids -- here in Texas -- Barbara James loves you.