The Smith-Hughes Act
February 23, 1917
The Smith-Hughes Act was central to the development of vocational education in the United States; indeed, it is often referred to as the Magna Carta of vocational education. It initiated a system of federal involvement in vocational education that remained largely unchanged until the 1960s and, in broad outline, continues today. It was the first permanent legislation authorizing federal involvement in education below the college level.1 It was one of the first education bills to mandate matching funds from the states. It represented a very significant increase in federal oversight and regulation of state educational policies. Finally, the Smith-Hughes Act created the only national board of education that has ever existed in the United States.
When the Smith-Hughes Act was voted on in 1917, it received nearly unanimous support. This level of support was not in any way inevitable, however. It was the result of years of lobbying by a uniquely broad coalition of business, labor, and educational leaders. It was the result of patient coalition building by Senator Hoke Smith of Georgia, its principal congressional sponsor. It was the result, finally, of President Woodrow Wilson coming to see the act as a necessary part of war preparedness on the eve of U.S. involvement in World War I. The unanimity of 1917 was thus a reflection of the effective political work leading up to the final vote.
The Smith-Hughes Act was intended to create a cooperative program with the states to promote, expand, and improve vocational