The New Deal’s Unintended Impact on Education

By David B. Woolner |

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in March of 1933, America’s schools, teachers and students had suffered enormously from the Great Depression. Things were so bad, for example, that at one point the State of Georgia was forced to shut down its entire school system and lay off virtually all its teachers. Many rural schools in other parts of the country were also forced to close their doors. In New York City, it is estimated that twenty percent of the student population was suffering from malnutrition. Even in relatively well-off districts there were massive budget cuts (averaging 30%), which of course resulted in further layoffs and reductions in the number and types of educational programs that were offered.

In response to the crisis, the Roosevelt Administration provided immediate relief in the form of a $20 million federal appropriation that was used to help shore up those schools and districts most in danger of collapse. Such a move was of course welcomed by the educational establishment in the country. The reaction is best represented by the National Educational Association (NEA), which saw FDR’s action as very much in keeping with the traditional view of the federal government’s relationship to education: providing funds to support State and local districts, but not getting involved in policy. Encouraged by this initial move, the NEA held out the hope that such aid would continue (which in itself would have been something of an innovation, as direct federal support for state and local schools prior to 1933 had been spotty at best). But although the New Deal would spend massive numbers of dollars that helped support education, most of these funds did not take the form of direct support for State and local districts. Nor were they spent or even overseen by the recently-created Department of Education, which opened in 1931. Rather, most of the money spent came under the auspices of such New Deal agencies as the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, and even the Civilian Conservation Corps. This was very much in keeping with the New Deal emphasis on providing relief not to organizations, but to individuals; of spending money whenever possible directly on infrastructure rather than channeling it to broader institutions.

One of the fascinating, yet unintended, consequences of the New Deal decision to help people rather than organizations was the discovery of the shocking state of education in 1930s America. There were massive numbers of individuals who were illiterate or did not possess even the most basic job skills. As a result, when the CCC — which was essentially a youth employment program — began operations in 1933, its leaders soon discovered that there was a critical need not only for technical training, but also basic literacy instruction. Each camp then set up classrooms where CCC employees could voluntarily take remedial classes. As the program progressed, more advanced instruction was offered in such subjects as mathematics and history, which gave more jobs to teachers, along with more basic technical and vocational training. The educational mission of the CCC became extremely popular (just ask any living CCC member), and by the late 1930s more than 90 percent of  CCC workers were enrolled in some sort of educational program.

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As an agency, the WPA not only found it too had to get involved in basic educational training, but was also the umbrella organization under which the Roosevelt Administration established the National Youth Administration (NYA). The NYA’s primary objective was to find ways to keep young people in school by providing them with part-time employment, usually within their educational institution, as clerks, janitors, researchers, library assistants, etc. Some of the youth also worked on construction projects. Such work, which provided a basic income, often made the difference between staying in school or dropping out, which kept young people from entering the already-strained full-time labor market.

Like the officials in the CCC or WPA, those in the NYA also discovered a good deal about America’s educational system. One discovery was the tremendous disparity in access to education between those who were well-off and those who were poor. Prior to the 1930s, it was a commonly held view that equal opportunity in education meant providing a basic level of education, after which each person would go on to whatever educational level he or she could work their way into or afford. This placed those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum — especially African-Americans and other minorities — at a tremendous disadvantage. The New Deal agencies began to reverse this trend by providing African Americans with jobs and training and, thanks to the work of Aubrey Williams and others, by specially supporting African American education. Under Williams’ leadership, for example, the NYA established a special fund that was exclusively used to aid black graduate students. NYA regulations forbid discrimination in student selection for jobs and paid its black student employees the same wages as the white students. The agency also extended its student aid program to virtually all of America’s black colleges.

Implicit in all of this activity was an acknowledgment that America’s educational system was not living up to its task; that the economic disparities in America had created tremendous educational disparities; that the notion that anyone in the US could gain access to a higher education if he or she worked hard enough was a fallacy. As Harry Hopkins, the Director of the WPA once put it in 1935:

All this about anyone being able to go to school who wants to is sheer nonsense…I grant you there are a few exceptional students who can do it, but the great majority of people cannot; and anyone who knows anything about this game knows that in the good old days of 28 and 29 tens of thousands of young people were leaving school to go to work for no other reason than that they were poor.

Granted, exposing the weakness in America’s educational system was not the original intent of the agencies mentioned here, but it was unquestionably one of the by-products. As the noted educational historian Paula S. Fass has observed, what the CCC, WPA and NYA did had important ramifications for the future. For even though most of the educational reform measures these agencies carried out were temporary in nature and would expire when the given program or agency was closed, they “demonstrated that the federal government could do what established agencies had failed to do,” and “changed the meaning and nature of all future discussions about the federal government and education.” Perhaps most importantly, they firmly established the idea that the Federal government not only has the right, but the responsibility to ensure that all Americans enjoy equal rights and opportunities.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian of the Roosevelt Institute, Senior Fellow of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, and Associate Professor of History at Marist College. He most recently published the edited volume Progressivism in America: Past Present and Future.