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Book Review: Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools

April 11, 2016
Presidents, Congress

Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform

Author: Jack Jennings
Length: 264 pages
Intent/Focus: To examine the evolution of federal education policy and present a vision for its future
What You Will Learn: Background information on the role of the federal government in education policy, the factors that shape federal education acts, the partisan climate that stymies policy-making, and some steps toward a more productive future.
Why We Recommend It: In this book, Jack Jennings offers an ambitious agenda for reframing education as a federal civil right and ensuring that every child has the opportunity to learn.


Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools examines the evolving role of the federal government in America’s education policy, and proposes changes that could potentially improve the quality of American education while ensuring adequate and fair funding for our schools. It is a cohesive, approachable account, written with credibility and authority. The author, Jack Jennings gained first-hand experience in federal education legislation during his 1967-1994 tenure with the House Committee on Education and Labor.

A reader describes Mr. Jennings’ ideas for education reform as, “big, sweeping, and controversial.” Jennings challenges the status quo and proposes changes that include an amendment to the Constitution. Based on experience and sound research, Mr. Jennings’ recommendations may indeed be considered “sweeping,” as they redesign the role of the federal government in education. He puts the obligation for improvement onto the federal government rather than the states or the schools, and calls for programs that improve resource distribution, curriculum, and student and teacher readiness.


Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools is organized into four sections:

  • Part 1 – Educational equity and the origins of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
  • Part 2 – Standards, Testing, and Accountability – Has this movement been effective?
  • Part 3 – Other Federal policies, such as bilingual education, school busing, free speech in schools, etc. Includes a discussion of lessons learned from federal involvement
  • Part 4 – Fresh thinking about the government’s role in education, including Mr. Jennings’ proposals for change


Notable academicians provide additional insight into the value of this book:

  • Marshall (Mike) Smith, Former Under-Secretary of the Department of Education says: “No one knows more about ESEA and especially Title I than Jack Jennings… As Jennings makes clear, the story is not over. His conclusions propose a new and important course for Congress.”
  • Elizabeth DeBray, Professor of Educational Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia says, “His ideas merit serious attention and debate.”
  • Gene Wilhoit, the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Education says, “… a must-read contribution to American education policy that will stimulate important conversations about our future.”

A Conversation with Your Class

In Envision’s Chase the Race 2016 program, we examine the most critical issues of the day, as voiced by our nation’s youth. Education reform topped our students’ list of issues. A discussion about the questions raised in Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools might be a productive exercise for your Civics or Social Studies class – or a good tie-in if you’re using the Chase the Race 2016 free election-related curriculum.

The Harvard Education Press has a ready-made list of discussion questions for you, such as:

  • Prior to the 1960s, control of public education was almost exclusively local. Was that good for students? Why or why not?
  • Does statewide student testing improve education?
  • Which of the following would make the biggest difference in our efforts to improve education?
    • Increase teachers’ salaries (to attract more qualified or experienced educators)
    • Provide more resources for schools and students, such as better-equipped libraries and labs, more computers, etc.
    • Focus funds to ensure equal education opportunities for children across all demographics and income levels

About the Author

Jack Jennings is a longtime policy analyst who founded the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit education research organization. He is a member of the National Academy of Education and recently served on the board of directors of the Phi Delta Kappa Foundation, including a term as chair of the board.

Related Articles:

Free Curriculum: Picking POTUS
Free Curriculum: Election Simulation
Free Classroom Resources from Discovery Education – Part 1
Free Classroom Resources from Discovery Education – Part 2
100’s of Free Resources from Youth Leadership Initiative
Key Issues for Teens Today


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