Pell, Author of Key Student-Aid Program, To Retire
By Julie A. Miller
Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., a leading voice on education issues and the author of a major student-aid program, said last week that he will retire next year after 36 years in the U.S. Senate.
The patrician, soft-spoken Sen. Pell, 76, has been the top Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities since 1969, serving as either its chairman or ranking minority member, depending on which party was in power.
"He has been the author or co-author of every major bill in vocational education, higher education, and elementary and secondary education" since the mid-1960s, said David V. Evans, the subcommittee's Democratic staff director.
Education lobbyists mourned the impending departure of a leading ally. "He's been with us on the issues every time," said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Mr. Pell was diagnosed last year with Parkinson's disease. But he said his health is not the reason he will not seek re-election when his sixth term expires. "There is a natural time for all life's adventures to come to an end," he said in a written statement.
He is the seventh Democratic senator to announce his departure since the Republicans took control of Congress in last year's elections, improving the gop's chances of holding or increasing its majority.
Sen. Pell, whose family moved from New York City to Newport, R.I., when he was a child, is best known as the author of a 1972 law creating the first federal grant program for needy college students, which was renamed Pell Grants in 1980.
"It was a radical idea at the time that the federal government could have a partnership directly with a person who could take the aid to the educational institution of his choice," Mr. Evans said.
Mr. Pell was a key player in creating the national endowments for the arts and humanities, and Mr. Evans said the senator was responsible for legislative language making libraries and museums eligible for many education grants.
The senator has also had a strong interest in vocational education and was a primary backer of programs that link secondary and postsecondary training. He is the author of a defunct metric-education program and a supporter of environmental education and efforts to lengthen the school year.
Mr. Pell was the primary sponsor of the mathematics and science program that was broadened last year into the Eisenhower Professional Development Program. Mr. Evans said that Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., asked Mr. Pell to name the program after President Eisenhower.
Mr. Pell said, "'If it will help create support for this program, I'm happy to let someone else have my way,"' Mr. Evans recalled. "That was his attitude."
Indeed, Mr. Pell is known as a quiet, evenhanded consensus builder, and the word invoked most often last week as colleagues praised him on the Senate floor was "civility."
He forged a close partnership in the 1980s with then-Sen. Robert T. Stafford, R-Vt., the education panel's ranking Republican; they were often called "the firm of Stafford and Pell."
"He's been a calming and rational influence, and helped take the partisanship out of education," said Michael Edwards, the manager of congressional relations for the National Education Association. "That's going to be sorely missed."
Mr. Pell is known for a modest, professorial personality unusual in politics. "Quirky" is another adjective often applied to the senator, whose interests include parapsychology.
This style has served him better on the education front than in his other area of expertise: foreign affairs. He is generally regarded as an ineffective leader on the Committee on Foreign Relations, where he has been the ranking Democrat since 1981. A former diplomat who participated in the conference that formed the United Nations, he opposed the Vietnam War and has been a strong supporter of arms-reduction measures.
Mr. Pell vowed to help re-elect President Clinton and fill his seat with another "progressive Democrat." He said he would "stay engaged in public service," but said he has no firm plans.