The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Dwight D. Eisenhower
Special Message to the Congress Concerning Federal Assistance in School Construction
February 8, 1955
To the Congress of the United States:

For the consideration of the Congress, I herewith propose a plan of Federal cooperation with the States, designed to give our school children as quickly as possible the classrooms they must have.

Because of the magnitude of the job, but more fundamentally because of the undeniable importance of free education to a free way of life, the means we take to provide our children with proper classrooms must be weighed most carefully. The phrase "free education" is a deliberate choice. For unless education continues to be free--free in its response to local community needs, free from any suggestion of political domination, and free from impediments to the pursuit of knowledge by teachers and students--it will cease to serve the purposes of free men.


A distinguishing characteristic of our Nation--and a great strength--is the development of our institutions within the concept of individual worth and dignity. Our schools are among the guardians of that principle. Consequently--and deliberately-their control and support throughout our history have been--and are--a State and local responsibility.

The American idea of universal public education was conceived as necessary in a society dedicated to the 'principles of individual freedom, equality, and self-government. A necessary corollary is that public schools must always reflect the character and aspirations of the people of the community.

Thus was established a fundamental element of the American public school system--local direction by boards of education responsible immediately to the parents of children and the other citizens of the community. Diffusion of authority among tens of thousands of school districts is a safeguard against centralized control and abuse of the educational system that must be maintained. We believe that to take away the responsibility of communities and States in educating our children is to undermine not only a basic element of our freedom but a basic right of our citizens.

The legislative proposals submitted to the last Congress were offered by the Administration in the earnest conviction that education must always be close to the people; in the belief that a careful reassessment by the people themselves of the problems of education is necessary; and with a realization of the growing financial difficulties that school districts face. To encourage a nation-wide examination of our schools, the 83rd Congress authorized funds for Conferences on Education in the 48 States and the Territories and for a White House Conference to be held in November this year.


These are the facts of the classroom shortage:

The latest information submitted by the States to the Office of Education indicates that there is a deficit of more than 300 thousand classrooms, a legacy--in part--of the years of war and defense mobilization when construction had to be curtailed. In addition, to keep up with mounting enrollments, the Nation must build at least 50 thousand new elementary and high school classrooms yearly. It must also replace the thousands of classrooms which become unsafe or otherwise unusable each year.

During the current school year, about 60 thousand new classrooms are being built. Capital outlays for public school construction will reach an all-time high of 2 billion dollars this year. During the last 5 years, new construction costing over 7 billion dollars has provided new classrooms for 6,750,000 pupils in our public schools. During that time more than 5 million additional children enrolled in school. Thus the rate of construction has more than kept pace with mounting enrollment. But it has only slightly reduced the total classroom deficit.

As a consequence, millions of children still attend schools which are unsafe or which permit learning only part-time or under conditions of serious over-crowding. To build satisfactory classrooms for all our children, the current rate of school building must be multiplied sharply and this increase must be sustained.

Fundamentally, the remedy lies with the States and their communities. But the present shortage requires immediate and effective action that will produce more rapid results. Unless the Federal Government steps forward to join with the States and communities, this emergency situation will continue.

Therefore--for the purpose of meeting the emergency only and pending the results of the nation-wide conferences--I propose a broad effort to widen the accepted channels of financing school construction and to increase materially the flow of private lending through them--without interference with the responsibility of State and local school systems. Over the next three years, this proposed effort envisages a total of 7 billion dollars put to work building badly needed new schools--in addition to construction expenditures outside these proposals.


1. Bond Purchases by the Federal Government

The first recommendation is directed at action--effective as rapidly as school districts can offer bonds to the public for sale.

I recommend that legislation be enacted authorizing the Federal Government, cooperating with the several States, to purchase school bonds issued by local communities which are handicapped in selling bonds at a reasonable interest rate. This proposal is sound educationally and economically. It will help build schools.

To carry out this proposal, I recommend that the Congress authorize the appropriation of 750 million dollars for use over the next three years.

2. State School Building Agencies

Many school districts cannot borrow to build schools because of restrictive debt limits. They need some other form of financing. Therefore, the second proposal is designed to facilitate immediate construction of schools without local borrowing by the school district.

To expand school construction, several States have already created special State-wide school building agencies. These can borrow advantageously, since they represent the combined credit of many communities. After building schools, the agency rents them to school districts. The local community under its lease gets a new school without borrowing.

I now propose the wider adoption of this tested method of accelerating school construction. Under this proposal, the Federal Government would share with the States in establishing and maintaining for State school building agencies an initial reserve fund equal to one year's payment on principal and interest.

The State school building agency--working in cooperation with the State educational officials--would issue its bonds through the customary investment channels, then build schools for lease to local school districts- Rentals would be sufficient to cover the payments on principal and interest of the bonds outstanding; a payment to a supplemental reserve fund; and a proportionate share of the administrative expenses of the State school building agency. In time, the payments to the reserve fund would permit repayment of the initial Federal and State advances. When all its financial obligations to the agency are met, the local school district takes title to its building.

I recommend that the Congress authorize the necessary Federal participation to put this plan into effect so that State building agencies may be in a position to issue bonds in the next three years which will build six billion dollars worth of new schools.

3. Grants for School Districts with Proved Need and Lack of Local Income

My first Message to the Congress on the State of the Union stated the view that "the firm conditions of Federal aid must be proved need and proved lack of local income." In my judgment, any sound program of grants must adhere to this principle. Some school districts meet the conditions. In them the amount of taxable property and local income is so low as to make it impossible for the district either to repay borrowed money or rent a satisfactory school building.

I now propose a program of grants-in-aid directed clearly and specifically at the urgent situations in which the Federal Government can justifiably share direct construction costs without undermining State and local responsibility. Under this proposal the Federal Government would share with the States part of the cost of building schools in districts where one of the following conditions is met:

(a) The school district, if it has not reached its legal bonding limit, cannot sell its bonds to the Federal Government under Proposal I because it cannot pay interest and principal charges on the total construction costs.

(b) The school district, if it has reached its legal bonding limit, is unable to pay the rent needed to obtain a school from a State agency on a lease-purchase basis, as described in Proposal 2.

The State would certify the school district's inability to finance the total construction cost through borrowing or a rental arrangement. It would also certify that the new school is needed to relieve extreme overcrowding, double shifts, or hazardous or unhealthful conditions.

The Federal and State aid would be in an amount sufficient for a school district to qualify under either Proposal 1 or Proposal 2 for financing the remainder of the building costs. The requirement that Federal funds be matched with State-appropriated funds is an essential safeguard to preservation of the proper spheres of local, State, and Federal responsibility in the field of public education.

By authorizing this program of joint Federal-State aid to supplement the financing plans set forth in Proposals 1 and 2, a workable way will be provided for every community in the Nation to construct classrooms for its children. I recommend that the Congress authorize the appropriation of 900 million dollars for a three-year program.

4. Grants for Administrative Costs of State Programs

In addition to immediate school construction, the nation needs to plan sound long-term financing of the public schools free from obsolete restrictions. Our State Conferences on Education will help accomplish this. Out of these meetings of parents, teachers, and public-spirited citizens, can come lasting solutions to such underlying problems as more efficient school districting and the modification of unduly restrictive local debt limits.

The Federal Government, having helped sponsor the State Conferences on Education, should now move to help the States in carrying out such recommendations as may be made. I propose, therefore, that the Federal Government furnish one-half of the Administrative costs of State programs which are designed to overcome obstacles to local financing or to provide additional State aid to local school districts.

For this purpose I recommend a total authorization of 20 million dollars with an appropriation of 5 million dollars for the first year of a three-year period.

This program is sound and equitable. It accelerates construction of classrooms within the traditional framework of local responsibility for our schools. It does not preclude other proposals for long-range solutions which undoubtedly will grow out of the State conferences and the White House Conference on Education.


The best possible education for all our young people is a fixed objective of the American nation. The four-point program, herein outlined, would help provide proper physical housing for the achievement of this objective. But the finest buildings, of themselves, are no assurance that the pupils who use them are each day better fitted to shoulder the responsibilities, to meet the opportunities, to enjoy the rewards that one day will be their lot as American citizens.

Good teaching and good teachers made even the one-room crossroads schools of the nineteenth century a rich source of the knowledge and enthusiasm and patriotism, joined with spiritual wisdom, that mark a vigorously dynamic people. Today, the professional quality of American teaching is better than ever. But too many teachers are underpaid and overworked and, in consequence, too few young men and women join their ranks. Here is a shortage, less obvious but ultimately more dangerous, than the classroom shortage.

The Conferences now underway and the massive school building program here proposed will, I believe, arouse the American people to a community effort for schools and a community concern for education, unparalleled in our history. Taken together, they will serve to advance the teaching profession to the position it should enjoy.

Federal aid in a form that tends to lead to Federal control of our schools could cripple education for freedom. In no form can it ever approach the mighty effectiveness of an aroused people. But Federal leadership can stir America to national action.

Then the nation's objective of the best possible education for all our young people will be achieved.


Citation: Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Special Message to the Congress Concerning Federal Assistance in School Construction", February 8, 1955. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
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