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9 Presidents Who Made a Difference in Education

By Lexi Walters Wright

U.S. presidents have always had a say in education. President Thomas Jefferson, for instance, thought public education was key to creating a strong country. Here’s a look at nine recent presidents and how they made a difference in education—differences that continue to have an impact on students with learning and thinking differences.

President Dwight Eisenhower (1953–1961)

During his term, the Supreme Court ruled that schools must be integrated. In 1957, Eisenhower provided critical support. He sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas. He was acting to enforce the integration of the city’s main high school.

The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was formed in 1953. It was the first step in creating the modern Department of Education. Also under Eisenhower, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 was passed. It gave schools more money for science and math programs.

President John Kennedy (1961–1963)

When Kennedy took office, many schools didn’t serve students with disabilities. But he had a personal interest in how schools could do more. His sister, Rosemary, was born with intellectual disabilities.

In 1961, Kennedy formed a panel that urged the government to provide money for specific programs. That included funds for research and .

President Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969)

Johnson was a teacher as a young man. He believed in education for all children. In 1965, he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It funded special education centers. It also gave grants for materials to schools with low-income students.

Johnson also created Head Start. It began as a preschool program for children from low-income families. Later, it expanded to include kids with . To date, Head Start has helped more than 32 million kids get ready for kindergarten.

President Richard Nixon (1969–1974)

Nixon isn’t usually thought of as an “education president.” He didn’t speak about it often. However, he’s a key president for kids with learning and thinking differences.

Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which included Section 504. This extended civil rights to people with disabilities and paved the way for .

President Gerald Ford (1974–1977)

For many families, 1975 was a turning point. Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act. It gave every child with a disability the right to a free appropriate public education.

Before that act was passed, many kids with special needs couldn’t go to public schools. Or they were placed in classrooms away from other kids. The new act changed that. It helped schools consider the education needs of each student with a disability. It also led to inclusion in public schools.

President George Bush (1989–1993)

In 1990, the first President Bush signed two major laws for people with disabilities. The first was the (IDEA). It required schools to provide special education in the . It also gave parents more of a say in decisions about their children’s education.

The second was the (ADA), which guaranteed equal rights to people with disabilities. It covers equal rights in school, at work and in public spaces.

President Bill Clinton (1993–2001)

In 1994, Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act into law. It outlined eight key goals for improving public education. One was to better prepare young kids for kindergarten through high-quality preschool programs. Another was to increase the number of kids who graduate from high school. Other objectives included making schools safer and helping teachers get more training. Goals 2000 also offered grants to help states create academic standards.

President George W. Bush (2001–2009)

The second President Bush pushed for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). The goal of NCLB was to improve the education of kids who are disadvantaged. The law focused on students receiving special education services. It emphasized the needs of kids living in poverty, minority students and English language learners. NCLB used annual tests to check how well kids were learning.

President Barack Obama (2009–2017)

In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This law replaced No Child Left Behind. ESSA also focuses on the learning progress of kids who are often underserved. That includes kids in special education. However, it uses more than test scores to evaluate how schools are doing.

ESSA calls for the creation of a national center that focuses on reading issues, including . It also authorizes grants to states and schools to help fund reading instruction.

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