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  • Writer's pictureAmy Lore

Six Degrees of LBJ: CTE Edition

When I want to know more about a federal program, I do two things. I follow the money, and I play my favorite game: Six Degrees of LBJ. Those are often the same thing.

Want to understand public education? Early childhood programs? Modern workforce development? What about welfare or health care? Six Degrees of LBJ is the way to go. It’s just like the Kevin Bacon version, but less exciting and exponentially more frustrating. (Bonus points for taking it back to FDR, and endless kudos if you can trace it back to Woodrow Wilson. Spoiler: you usually can.)

I have been taking a trip through the history of career and technical education this week, reminding myself how we got where we are, and I managed to make it back to LBJ in just four moves, which I’ll explain shortly.

Most people use “Perkins” as shorthand for the federal CTE law, referring to the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1983 and its subsequent reauthorizations. But even that first iteration of the law was a revision of an LBJ era act that passed in 1963. Congress overcame substantial gridlock to pass the Vocational Education Act (which still bore the fingerprints of dear old Carl through his work as General Education Subcommittee Chair).

In fact, signing the bill into law was one of LBJ’s first official acts as President, and there is plenty of evidence that his infamous, heavy-handed influence was the key element to breaking up the congressional stalemate to get the bill passed.[1] He signed it into law just a month after President Kennedy’s assassination.

Since then, we have seen five versions of the Perkins law pass down from on high, the most recent being signed by President Trump in 2018. By my count, that makes four degrees of LBJ (Perkins V > Perkins IV-I > Voc Ed Act > LBJ), but you could lump all the Perkins iterations into one degree and get three. I will allow either method. You win nothing but my appreciation.

Long before LBJ was looming over members of Congress and making phone calls from his presidential toilet, the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was signed by none other than Woodrow Wilson, allocating unprecedented millions to vocational aid. (The original pot of $7.2 million would be roughly equivalent to $155 million in 2022 dollars.) It was one of many hotly (and appropriately) contested policies that inserted the federal government into education, an area strict constructionists reserve for the states.

As the Perkins language has evolved, it has become more complex, even linking itself with other federal laws. The basics of Perkins remain, however, targeting public school students in career and tech programs as well as technical and community college students in 16 defined career clusters.

Every year, about $1.2 billion dollars is funneled to states through Perkins.[2] That money comes with plenty of strings attached, and states have made widely different use of the funding. I’m not sure LBJ would care much about that, but he would certainly enjoy the legacy he created.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this CTE Edition of Six Levels of LBJ. Be sure to bring this treasure out at your next social gathering. It's a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Please include any snide remarks or extravagant flattery in the comments.

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