Several Education-Friendly Lawmakers in Tight Races
Officially, President Clinton's visit to Framingham, Mass., where he signed the Improving America's Schools Act last week, was not a campaign stop.
But by holding the event at Framingham High School, Mr. Clinton feted Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., whose committee drafted the bill--better known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act--that reauthorizes most federal K-12 programs. And while the President's speech was not overtly political, he spoke at a Democratic rally later in the day.
"This is an attempt by Clinton to acknowledge a major leader in the education community," said Mickey Ibarra, the National Education Association's political manager.
It is a boost that the Democratic icon's embattled re-election bid can use. But in this cynical campaign year, it is unclear if Washington's education-friendly lawmakers, some of whom join Mr. Kennedy in tight races, will benefit from their successes in the 103rd Congress.
Mr. Clinton's speech highlighted some of those victories, including reauthorization of Title I and Head Start, passage of a school-to-work bill, and creation of the AmeriCorps national-service program.
"Six times we broke through the gridlock that has blocked reform for a decade," Senator Kennedy declared at the signing ceremony. "Six bills in two years, and these measures will strengthen education at all levels."
But credit for these successes seems to be supplanted in some states by fierce anti-Clinton, anti-incumbent sentiments.
"Voters are blaming everyone in Congress for what they see as a do-nothing Congress. But that's just not true, especially with education," said Rachelle Horowitz, the political director of the American Federation of Teachers.
Education Leaders Imperiled
Education advocates fear that veterans such as Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich.; Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont.; and Neal Smith, D-Iowa, are not immune from the trend. Indeed, they are in some of the nation's toughest races.
"There's a definite throw-the-bums-out flavor this year," said Eric Feaver, the president of the Montana Education Association.
The A.F.T. hopes to turn that tide by spending $2 million this fall, twice what it spends on most federal elections, Ms. Horowitz said.
Added the N.E.A.'s Mr. Ibarra, "I'm spending more than I want to, but it's necessary."
Senator Kennedy easily tops the list of lawmakers whom education advocates worry might not be back for the 104th Congress.
At 62, he is trying to extend a 32-year Capitol Hill career, which includes sponsoring most major education legislation in recent years.
But Mitt Romney, a businessman and the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, has given him his toughest fight to date. Polls have shown a close race, though the most recent poll, released last week, has Mr. Kennedy 10 points ahead.
Education platforms in this race are starkly different and reflect many of the national divisions between liberals and conservatives.
Mr. Romney supports school vouchers, charter schools, and reintroduction of "basic American principles and ideals into education." He advocates reducing the federal role in education, in part by abolishing the Education Department.
Senator Kennedy, conversely, has backed an expansion of federal education programs and has been a staunch opponent of voucher proposals.
Hoping to project education as a big campaign issue, the 70,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association endorsed Senator Kennedy in a news conference one day before Mr. Clinton's ceremony.
"We're making this a big week for education," said an association spokesman, Steve Wollmer.
The Importance of Allies
National education groups definitely view Mr. Kennedy as a reliable and powerful ally.
For example, said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, Senator Kennedy deserves a lot of the credit for passage of the bill signed last week after it was introduced late by the Administration.
"Kennedy and [Rep. Bill Ford, D-Mich.], saved their bacon," said Mr. Hunter. "When you lose Kennedy, you lose someone who can do things fast."
In the House, another such ally, Mr. Kildee, the chairman of the Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee, is in a dogfight with Republican Meagan O'Neill, whom he narrowly beat two years ago. Aides in both camps say their candidate leads in internal polls.
Ms. O'Neill said the standards promoted in the Goals 2000 law are "laudable," but added that she is "upset about the federal government trying to control local education." She said the federal role should be limited to providing nutrition programs and promoting school safety.
"Goals 2000 is a bill replete with voluntary standards," countered Mr. Kildee, a former schoolteacher. "She apparently hasn't read it."
Observers noted that this year's retirement of Mr. Ford, the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, means that Mr. Kildee would probably become the panel's de facto leader on education issues. Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., is in line to take over the chairmanship, but his primary interest on the committee has been in labor issues.
"Those are big shoes to fill, but I accept the challenge and will try to fill them," Mr. Kildee said.
On the Danger List
Congressional Quarterly's Oct. 8 list of the 53 most competitive House contests named several lawmakers in prime positions to influence education legislation, including Mr. Kildee.
Mr. Williams of Montana, the chairman of the House Labor-Management Relations Subcommittee, made the list despite a 15-percentage-point lead in recent polls over his G.O.P. challenger, Cy Jamison. But the polls also found 16 percent of likely voters remained undecided.
Mr. Williams, a former teacher who was elected to the House in 1978, could regain the chairmanship of the Postsecondary Education and Training Subcommittee, which he relinquished to Mr. Ford.
Mr. Smith of Iowa, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, is also in electoral trouble. Polls show him in a dead heat with the Republican hopeful, Greg Ganske, a doctor.
As the chairman of the subcommittee handling education funding, Mr. Smith is in a powerful position to influence the education agenda.
"This certainly is an important race for the future of education," said Michael Edwards, the manager of Congressional relations for the N.E.A. "The real question for the 104th Congress is, will they spend the money to enact the 103rd's bills?"
Other Education and Labor Committee members on the "most competitive" list include Reps. Karan English, D-Ariz.; Ted Strickland, D-Ohio; and Jolene Unsoeld, D-Wash.
Mr. Strickland, Mr. Williams, Mr. Smith, and another committee member, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., also were named by Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill, as four of the 25 "most vulnerable House incumbents."