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Former Sen. James Jeffords, Key Education Lawmaker, Dies at 80

By Lauren Camera — August 19, 2014 2 min read
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Former Sen. James Jeffords, a Republican-turned-Independent from Vermont, whose thumbprint is on landmark education laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Higher Education Act, died Aug. 18, at the age of 80.

Outside of education circles, Mr. Jeffords is most famous for switching parties in 2001, while he was chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which was in the process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The decision tilted control of the Senate from Republican to Democratic.

“I am in the middle—I am more conservative than any Democrat, and more liberal than any Republican,” he told Education Week in an interview at that time.

Mr. Jeffords’ independence and growing antipathy toward the Republican Party came to a head during the HELP Committee’s efforts to reauthorize the ESEA law, during which it was transformed into the No Child Left Behind Act.

In one of his most brazen splits with his party during NCLB negotiations, the chairman was the only Republican member, out of 10 total, to oppose a GOP measure known as the “Straight A’s” Act. The proposal would have given states greater flexibility in how they use federal funds, including Title I “portability,” which would have offered vouchers to disadvantaged students in low-performing schools to attend the public or private schools of their choice.

Mr. Jeffords spoke at length about his reasons for switching parties during a May 24, 2001 speech, in Burlington, Vt.:

Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party. ... Due to the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me, and for me to deal with them. Indeed, the party's electoral success has underscored the dilemma that I face within the party. ... We don't live in a parliamentary system. But it is only natural to believe that people like myself, who have been honored with positions of leadership, will largely support the president's agenda. And yet, more and more, I find I cannot."

The Yale University and Harvard Law School graduate was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and was involved in education issues from the outset as a member of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

One of his first assignments was helping to write the landmark 1975 law guaranteeing an education for students with disabilities, now known as the IDEA. He was elected to the Senate in 1989, and until his retirement in 2006, he worked on almost every piece of education-related legislation that went through Congress.

Mr. Jeffords also was a member and one of the strongest supporters of the National Education Goals Panel, the group of governors, state legislators, and White House officials charged with carrying out the national goals that grew out in of the 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Va., called by President George H.W. Bush.

In the Senate, Mr. Jeffords chaired the HELP Committee from 1997 until 2001, when he changed parties and former Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal lion from Massachusetts, assumed the chairmanship.

Mr. Jeffords not only helped lay the groundwork for the NCLB law, but was also a principal architect of the Higher Education Act, which he told Education Week he finalized during a golf tournament in 1998 with former Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the then-chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The lifelong politician was popular among Vermont teachers and principals for bringing in federal money and resources that the small, rural state would not have otherwise received. In the 1994 ESEA reauthorization, for instance, he secured passage of a higher guarantee of minimum Title I funding for small states.

He also regularly read to students at local schools.

Mr. Jeffords had an eclectic collection of extracurricular activities including singing, skiing, and tae kwon do. He was a member of the Singing Senators, a group of four GOP lawmakers who sang folk and country songs.


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