School Reform and Politics: The Lessons of LBJ and the Pedernales

Summary: Truly radical government intervention seems to occur at moments of raggedness in the social fabric, such as in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. At what point do the struggles of our low income students – and by extension our public schools – take on such depth of crisis as to evoke a radically effective response?

Good historical scholarship casts patterns that help us to see how the problems of today could be resolved from what otherwise may seem a hopeless mess.

The struggles of poverty and its impact on lower income kids, and the corrosive effect of institutional racism on those students of color, has an historical analog in the sufferings of backwater rural poor in the 1930’s. Cue specifically the farmers of the forsaken Hill Country of Texas and the Pedernales River basin, the birth place of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. Johnson biographer Robert Caro in The Path to Power profiles in excruciating detail the ordeal of the men and women of the Hill Country striving to survive in its hardscrabble agricultural environment without the brawn of modern electricity that had already transformed urban life elsewhere in the United States.

Truly, the account seems almost Biblical in its depiction of toil without mercy, and its entrapment of the human spirit. Water for cooking, washing, cleaning, cooking, canning, and drinking, was a primary task master to which farmers of the Hill Country had to respond, though hardly the only one. Water from the well perhaps two hundred feet from the house and 100 feet down had to be carried manually to the house numerous times a day. By one reckoning the task took an estimated 63 eight hour days and 1750 miles of walking to and fro in a year’s time. The women, to whom much of the task fell while men were tending the fields and the animals, became stoop shouldered and physically worn before middle age.

In the 90 and 100 degrees of the Texas summer, under a tin kitchen roof beneath a remorseless sun, the farmer wife kept the fire burning in the stove to heat water for washing or bathing or for canning fruits and vegetables (which would rot quickly in the heat if not quickly preserved), and for cooking meals from scratch each day (there was no refrigeration). The stove had to be regularly supplied with wood, though with care in order to maintain a steady heat for cooking. Corn for meal had to be ground by hand.

In the same vein of manual drudgery, wet clothing as wash had to be held in the air on a pole to drip dry before being rung by hand. Irons for pressing clothes, literally made of iron, were kept hot on the wood stove, and weighed six or seven pounds, compounding the physical strain on the women.

Meanwhile, the men milked the cows at night by the dim glow of kerosene lanterns, but without electrical refrigeration the ice they used to keep the milk from spoiling was an imperfect substitute, and milk was regularly lost.

Each of these elemental tasks would prove much less burdensome with the advent of electricity and the machines they powered, which would draw water from the well, wash clothes and press them more efficiently, preserve food and milk, and cook and bake food without primordial resort to wood fire.

In our contemporary urban life, it is difficult to imagine this essentially subsistence existence, but it was one stage set in the crisis facing FDR when he took office in 1933. In the wings was a young Lyndon Johnson, already a minor player in national and Texas politics, and in the hunt for his own path to power.

Johnson ascended to the House of Representatives in 1937. Shortly after, he leveraged his relationship with FDR to give a rural Pedernales electrical cooperative the authority to bring electricity to the Hill Country, despite classic resistance from private utilities and the bureaucratic intransigence of the Rural Electrification Administration. Lyndon Johnson, narcissism personified, and amoral in his person, hungry for power and recognition, was a genuine hero. In one of those apparently ceaseless ironies of history, the transformation of the lives of Hill Country farmers in the wake of new electricity was directly due to his often venal manipulations,

So I ponder: In the depths of a hell on earth that had corollary in other walks of life in the 1930’s, the Hill Country farmer found relief in the ministrations of the New Deal government, which acted where all previous regimes had abdicated. Does it take extremity to call forth drastic, even heroic measures? Are there lessons in this for our schools, and more particularly the academic future of our students of poverty, be they of color or white?

The lives of kids of poverty and their sub-par school experience have a different cast than the Hill Country existence prior to the introduction of electricity, but they are just as bluntly defeating for the students whose lives are affected. Cases in point: the kid whose father has disappeared and whose mother is absent at work long hours of the day, the kid of the addict, or the object of abuse, or the kid whose parent moves incessantly, or is homeless, and loses long stretches of learning, and so shows up by high school with barely elementary skills. At all levels, the schools that serve these kids are not up to their complex task. These are not isolates, but whole populations, the dislocations of poverty in the lives of poor folk, and anchor our chronically low national academic skills. To intimates of schools, this is crisis.

I think also of the Marshall Plan that responded to the specter of communism on the edge of Western Europe, and helped speed a recovery from World War II that quieted the restlessness on the left. Teddy Roosevelt, he of trust busting, responded to a labor environment that had become truly violent in the face of the various hegemonies of Big Steel and the railroads, among other exploiters of working men and women. FDR and the New Deal responded to the cataclysm of the Great Depression and, perhaps the imminent collapse of capitalism (as some historians would have it), and certainly to the pains of the little people of the Hill Country and beyond. Johnson’s own Great Society and Voting Rights Act, ebbed as it has, still gave hope to many people and redressed imbalances of economic and political power of the1960’s.

This meditation on history comes to its end. Will the collapse of urban schools that serve the poor, and the struggles of low income students even in more fortunate academic environments, have to descend to more deeply crisis levels before ascending calamity is registered in halls of power, state and federal, and truly radical remedies are considered on the order of the New Deal, TR’s trust busting, or the Marshall Plan?

I worry this is the case, as one who sees no out from a need for greater (and hopefully well targeted) school funding mostly to deepen and widen the human intervention cadre working with at risk kids. Pockets of successful reform in public schools and charters alike not only improve upon the teacher/student ratio and provide mentors, but deliver services targeted to common struggles of low income families which interfere with long view academic success — health and mental health care, financial assistance for housing, quality day care, and other supports as circumstance merits.

Too many power brokers are late to an understanding of the crisis, being predominately whites blind to the realities that black folk, for example, take as given. Some privileged folks also have a misguided tendency to ascribe indolence as the primary door to poverty. Fresh strategies to alleviate the related and growing income gap occupy too little of our collective creativity and political will.

Perhaps storm clouds gather for a reckoning. Black Lives Matter is the latest of the series of paroxysms on race in the life of this country that demand justice before the body politic, this time in the person of the police. The echo extends to failed educational opportunity. The Washington State Supreme Court takes the extraordinary measure of censuring the Washington State Legislature for failure to fully fund education in the state. Orthodoxy is challenged by charter schools. American students’ poor standing against a globe of their peers continues to frustrate and bewilder heartfelt commitment of many in the extended schools community and on the part of relative outliers who know the crisis well.

In parallel with the New Deal, today’s calls for educational opportunity for the poor and the needs of capitalism become one and the same: students whose learning is impeded in various ways become burdens to the economy in the form of welfare, depressed consumer activity, and the costs of incarceration. Corporate CEO’s with vision are taking note.

We cannot take all this as good news, but perhaps it is necessary news that will sooner than later bring the school reform to the center of our political attention, and the perceived crisis generate educational investment on the order of the New Deal, with machinery parallel to that of the Rural Electrification Administration, which altered life so fundamentally on the Pedernales River.

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