'Ed-Flex' Sponsor Gave Bill a Push Before Media Storm
Last summer, Sen. Bill Frist introduced a measure that he thought would give schools a bit of relief from bureaucracy by expanding the popular, but little-known, "Ed-Flex" program from 12 to all 50 states.
The Tennessee Republican promoted his plan at every possible venue last fall. But the measure got scant attention in the last days of the 105th Congress, and even less media coverage. By September, Mr. Frist was told there was no room in the legislative calendar for a vote, but he continued to push for his plan.
Enter the 106th Congress: Lawmakers emerging from the bruising impeachment trial of President Clinton, ready to chalk up a quick legislative victory, pounced on Sen. Frist's reintroduced Ed-Flex bill. The House and Senate votes last month became top stories in USA Today and The New York Times. And members from both parties used the bill as a vehicle to debate larger priorities, including class-size reduction and special education funding. The final legislation, approved last week by the House and Senate, now awaits Mr. Clinton's signature.
Sen. Bill Frist
In the whirlwind, the low-key physician-turned-senator got little credit for sparking the movement. Once again, the man who could be considered one of Washington's most unlikely politicians had taken a back seat to standard Capitol Hill politics.
But he wasn't disappointed, he says.
Ed-Flex "clearly warranted the attention," Mr. Frist said in a recent interview.
"When I wrote the bill, no one knew what Ed-Flex was," the genial, soft-spoken legislator added. But through conversations with educators, the senator said, he realized he had found a viable initiative.
A surgeon from a prominent Nashville family who was well-known for performing the state's first heart transplant, Mr. Frist shocked the Tennessee political establishment when he announced his candidacy. He went on to score one of the biggest upsets of the 1994 elections by defeating incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser, a Democrat.
Senate Republicans have turned to the 47-year-old first-termer time and again on prominent education and health-care issues. That's created an opportunity for him to become a leading voice for his party's conservative brand of education reform. But Sen. Frist--who is on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee--has yet to step into that role.
Instead, he has remained an advocate for the more moderate GOP goals, including more flexibility for schools, better teacher training, and more--but better-spent--federal dollars for education.
His plans have often been sidetracked, though, by the Senate's senior Democrats, who are better-versed in the chamber's arcane processes and have used their knowledge to waylay many of the GOP majority's legislative measures.
Sen. Frist was initiated into the Washington crossfire when he spent more than two years guiding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reauthorization.
The revamping of the controversial federal special education law began in 1995 and quickly pulled the freshman lawmaker into a fiercely emotional debate over the law's civil rights provisions. In 1997, the chairman of the Senate education committee, Vermont Republican James M. Jeffords, and Mr. Frist helped form a bipartisan working group, which hashed out a watered-down IDEA bill acceptable to most of the factions.
"I worked very hard for two years, bringing everyone to the table and earning the trust of everyone at the table," Sen. Frist recalled. "Was it a perfect bill? No, but over time there will continue to be continued improvements to it."
His abilities inspire praise from Chairman Jeffords, a leading gop moderate, who said through a spokesman: "Senator Frist is one senator who looks beyond what education programs do, and goes that extra step to ask, 'What are they supposed to accomplish?' "
B. Joseph Ballard, a longtime lobbyist for the Reston, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, praised Mr. Frist's debut performance in the IDEA reauthorization as "absolutely stellar."
"He was gracious in every way, never sought self-aggrandizement," Mr. Ballard said. "I've never seen a person who learned so remarkably rapidly."
Schools Come First
Despite Sen. Frist's exceptional credentials in health care--he boasts a 10-page résumé of medical accomplishments--he calls education his top priority because he is the father of three sons, ages 11 to 15. He has served on the Senate health and education committee since coming to Congress in 1995, and he chaired the 1997-98 Senate Budget Task Force on Education.
"Health care is a natural assumption," said the Senate's only physician. "In truth, my commitment to young people and education has been my whole life."
Building on that interest, he holds videoconferences to converse with elementary and middle school classes in Tennessee schools at least once a month.
On a recent sunny day in Washington, he chatted by computer (one outfitted with a special camera) with 8th graders from Page Middle School in Franklin, Tenn., after attending a hearing on bioterrorism. The students bombarded him with questions on topics such as Kosovo, the "Y2K" computer glitch, and his favorite basketball team, for which he donned a University of Tennessee Lady Vols cap.
But he paused when a student asked how his ideals meshed with those of former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, a fellow Tennessean who recently announced his bid for next year's Republican presidential nomination.
Unlike Mr. Alexander and other conservative Republicans, the senator explained that he does not favor abolishing the Department of Education. But, he added, "when Lamar Alexander said that, what he really was saying was, having this big building here, with thousands of people in Washington, is not as important as your classrooms and the decisions made by your teachers."
Sen. Frist later said he has not signed on to more conservative initiatives such as vouchers and "Super Ed-Flex," which would delete a much wider range of federal regulations than his Ed-Flex plan advocates. But he's considering a wide variety of proposals to revamp the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year and give educators more flexibility.
While some Democrats say he's done little more than public relations for GOP causes, they admit he's been an effective spokesman.
"He's put a reasonable face on some of their initiatives," said Andrew Rotherham, the director of the 21st Century Schools project for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
But Sen. Frist doesn't pretend to be unscathed by the political wrangling he has experienced.
He called the dragged-out Ed-Flex debate "disappointing, but not surprising." In particular, he was dismayed that Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley did not support his bill, instead saying that Ed-Flex should only be expanded as part of the ESEA reauthorization and not as a stand-alone bill. "I was very hurt when the secretary of education came before my committee and said he didn't want to pass the bill now," Mr. Frist said.
Up for re-election in 2000, he says he aims to spend only one more term in the Senate, then return to Tennessee to pick up his medical practice.
"I've been blessed because I've had two wonderful career opportunities," he told the Page Middle School students.
Vol. 18, Issue 33, Pages 23-24