Hawkins: Democrats’ ‘Mr. Education’

By Julie A. Miller — December 13, 1989 4 min read

Washington--When the Education Department launched a public-relations offensive in mid-October to accompany its regional meetings on parental choice, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins was ready with a counterattack.

Not content to issue a press release, the California Democrat mailed out an information package that included an invitation to reporters to interview him on the topic of parental choice and detailed instructions on how radio and television stations could establish audio and video contact.

Mr. Hawkins, who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, also prepared by speaking to like-minded groups of people, such as parents whose children participate in the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program. He encouraged them to speak out at the department’s meetings--which they did.

Mr. Hawkins said his initiative was spurred by his strong feelings about choice, which he fears will hurt disadvantaged students.

But choice is only one of several education issues that has received Mr. Hawkins’s attention this fall. Indeed, many observers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere agree, the veteran Congressman, known as a quiet, dogged legislator, is emerging as a highly visible spokesman on education.

A Critical Voice

While choice has been the issue he has spoken out on most often, at Congressional hearings, at media events, on talk shows and in interviews, there are other examples:

Mr. Hawkins has castigated the Education Department for giving too little attention to the omnibus education bill enacted in 1988 and chastised President Bush and Governors over the statement they issued at their September education summit.

Mr. Hawkins cited inaccuracies in their portrayal of federal education programs and criticized their advocacy of relaxing education regulations, which he argues are necessary to protect the disadvantaged populations the programs are designed to serve.

On Nov. 14, Mr. Hawkins delivered a scathing attack on Mr. Bush’s education policies at the National Press Club, and predicted that Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos would eventually resign, portraying him as a well-intentioned man hamstrung by political constraints.

That same week, the Education and Labor Committee held an unusual two-day “symposium,” at which educators, business leaders, and researchers gave their views on the status and future of education.

Mr. Hawkins said he was motivated by dissatisfaction with the direction being taken by the Administration and the summit participants, and his purpose was to “see whether we’re on the right track.”

‘To Get His Message Out’

Peter Woolfolk, who became the panel’s press secretary this summer, said Mr. Hawkins told him he wanted to make more of an effort “to get his message out” and talk directly with reporters more often, primarily on the topic of education.

“I think the prominence of choice is a big factor, but I also think he’s really feeling an ownership interest” in education programs after working hard for passage of last year’s omni4bus reauthorization bill, one of Mr. Hawkins’s education aides said.

The Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Act of 1988 was named after Mr. Hawkins and former Senator Robert T. Stafford, Republican of Vermont.

Mr. Hawkins says he is just “doing this year what we started doing in 1965,” the year the first major federal education programs were enacted.

“More people may be listening now,” he said. “If my profile is high, it wasn’t a conscious decision so much as that education itself has gained a higher profile and more people are beginning to see education as a key element in our development as a nation.”

Mr. Hawkins also said he made no conscious decision to act as an opposition voice in counterpart to Administration officials.

“I’m still advocating what we set out to do years ago--to educate all children and give those children the best education we can,” he said. “When we have those in high places advocating policies and practices that disagree with historic developments in the field of education and departing from what I think the real objectives in education are, they are obviously going to incur some opposition.”

“If I’ve made a conscious effort to do anything, it’s to put education at the top of the national agenda,” Mr. Hawkins added. “I think I’ve probably been guilty of that.”

A Switch in Emphasis

For most of his 27-year Congressional career, Mr. Hawkins has been known primarily for his work on labor issues. He joined the late Sena8tor Hubert H. Humphrey as a primary sponsor of the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment act, and played a key role in enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits job discrimination.

He took over the Education and Labor chairmanship in late 1984, following the death of the panel’s longtime chairman, Carl D. Perkins, the legendary Kentucky Democrat famed for his damn-the-torpedoes legislative style and for his championship of education programs, two of which bear his name.

In 1985, Mr. Hawkins swapped the lead seat on the Employment Opportunities Subcommittee for the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, which Mr. Perkins had also chaired.

He says he saw education emerging as an area where increasing public attention would allow him to make an impact, while at the same time, it was becoming increasingly difficult to move labor legislation.

“I’ve always been somewhat interested,” he said, “but as chairman of the committee, I saw we had the opportunity to forge a consensus on education, and a possibility of getting bipartisan support.”

Nevertheless, Democrats remained largely on the defensive during the Reagan Administration, and the Hawkins-Stafford Act represented the most significant expansion of federal education programs in years.

“He was Mr. Labor and Perkins was Mr. Education,” opined a veteran education lobbyist. “I think it’s taken him a while to hit his stride, but he’s clearly staked out his ground on this issue now.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 1989 edition of Education Week as Hawkins: Democrats’ ‘Mr. Education’