‘Cornerstone’ of Education Advocacy Said at Stake in Three Key Senate Races

By Mark Pitsch — October 31, 1990 5 min read

Washington--Education groups here are closely monitoring the electoral prospects of three Democratic senators described by one lobbyist as the collective “cornerstone of the Senate’s advocacy on the part of education and children.”

Observers say the chances are slim that Senators Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Paul Simon of Illinois will all suffer defeats in next week’s Congressional elections. But while the three are leading their opponents in recent polls, each faces a determined challenge from a seasoned Republican U.S. representative.

At stake for the education community could be increases in education funding and friendly leadership when the Higher Education Act is reauthorized during the next session.

Any turnover among the Senate’s top advocates for education would come at a time when the House Education and Labor Committee is bracing for a change in leadership. Michigan Democrat William D. Ford is slated to assume the chairmanship of the committee when Augustus F. Hawkins of California retires after this session.

“You never really can replace individuals like Pell, Harkin, and Simon,” said the lobbyist, Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association.

All three have been endorsed by the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, and those organizations’ state affiliates.

Rhode Island Veteran

In Rhode Island, Representative Claudine Schneider has been having a difficult time undermining the popularity of Mr. Pell, the veteran lawmaker who has chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities for the last 15 years.

Recent polls have shown Mr. Pell outdistancing the Republican by anywhere from 6 to 23 percentage points.

Mr. Pell, who entered the Senate in 1960, is considered the dean of the Congress’s education advocates. If re-elected, he is expected to play a crucial role in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

In the early 1970’s, he fashioned the federal government’s most comprehensive college-grant program, named the Pell Grants for him in 1980, and has had his hand in most major pieces of education legislation over the years, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the establishment of the Education Department, and the Education of the Handicapped Act.

Ms. Schneider, a five-term representative who has championed the environment, is generally considered one of the more liberal members of her party. That has made attacking Mr. Pell’s record awkward. So, in an allusion to the age and long tenure of the 71-year-old incumbent, she has been trying to convince Rhode Islanders that it is time to usher in a change of leadership.

In Iowa, the candidates’ issues, priorities, and philosophies are much more clearly distinguished.

Divergence in Iowa

Representative Tom Tauke, a member of the Education and Labor Committee and its Human Resources and Postsecondary Education subcommittees, is a moderate Republican who has raised questions in recent years over federal spending bills, including those that included healthy increases in education funding. Mr. Harkin, a liberal Democrat, has been an architect of those increases as the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over education.

Mr. Harkin, who also chairs the Subcommittee on Disability Policy, is making his first bid at Senate re-election. He spent 10 years as a member of the Iowa House delegation.

Mr. Tauke, a six-year veteran of the House who is considered one of the gop’s brightest prospects for wresting a Senate seat from the Democrats, is generally held in low regard by education lobbyists here. The lobby has often battled him, most recently over his opposition to HR 3, the child-care bill passed by the House last spring.

Polls conducted during the summer showed Mr. Harkin with a double-digit lead in percentage points over the challenger. But that lead has slipped in recent months.

Illinois Contest

Mr. Simon of Illinois also is considered beatable by the GOP, although polls suggest his opponent, Representative Lynn Martin, has been increasingly unable to convince voters that she could do a better job than the one-term senator.

Mr. Simon has made education and employment issues a priority during his Senate term and his earlier service in the House, and would be expected to influence the HEA reauthorization.

Ms. Martin and others have questioned what they see as his close ties to trade schools, which have been under sharp scrutiny for their high percentage of student-loan defaulters.

Education advocates see Ms. Martin as one of former President Reagan’s closest comrades during his campaigns for cuts in education-program funding in the 1980’s. The Illinois representative has charged that much of the federal assistance to education goes to “failed programs.”

Ms. Martin’s name surfaced last week in press speculation about possible successors to Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole.

House Freshmen in Tight Races

While the three Senate campaigns weigh most heavily on the minds of those in the education community here, lobbyists are also following the races of several House freshmen who sit on the Education and Labor Committee.

Two Democratic panelists--Patsy Mink of Hawaii, who returned to the Congress in a special election this fall after previously serving between 1965 and 1977, and Jolene Unsoeld of Washington--are considered to be in close races.

But most notable to education observers is the re-election bid of Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, who during his brief service in the House has established himself as a noteworthy player on education issues.

Mr. Smith successfully attached to the omnibus education bill that was awaiting final consideration late last week a provision that would provide school districts with flexibility in using federal education dollars in exchange for “performance agreements.”

Despite Mr. Smith’s relative liberalism, interest in education, and ability to forge an agreement with the Democrats on his “performance agreement” bill, Vermont’s NEA and AFT affiliates have endorsed his principal opponent, former Burlington Mayor Bernard Sanders, a socialist who is running as an independent. The national NEA has declined to make an endorsement; the national aft is supporting its affiliate’s endorsement, but has not contributed to Mr. Sanders’ campaign.

The two candidates have been running neck-and-neck in the latest polls. General dissatisfaction with the Congress over the deficit-reduction squabble may provide enough last-minute fodder for Mr. Sanders’ campaign, in which he seems to be running against the whole of the Congress and not just Mr. Smith.

The Democratic nominee, Delores Sandoval, lacks party support and is given little chance of victory.

The most senior education advocates in the House seeking re-election--including Mr. Ford of Michigan and Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee--are expected to be returned for the 102nd Congress.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Cornerstone’ of Education Advocacy Said at Stake in Three Key Senate Races