Hawkins To Retire After His 28th Year in Congress

By Deborah L. Cohen — February 07, 1990 4 min read

Washington--Hoping to put his 56 years in politics to use as an “ordinary citizen,” Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, has announced that he will retire from the Congress at the end of this session.

Representative William D. Ford of Michigan, who served as chairman of the Postsecondary Education Subcommittee from 1977 to 1980 and from 1985 to 1986, is expected to succeed Mr. Hawkins as chairman of the full commmittee.

A 27-year veteran of the House and its oldest member at age 82, the California Democrat has gained a reputation as a quiet but persistent champion of liberal causes.

In the tradition of President Johnson’s Great Society, Mr. Hawkins’s early work on the committee focused on employment issues. He co-sponsored the section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act establishing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full-Employment Act.

In recent years, however, Mr. Hawkins has emerged as a highly visible spokesman on education. (See Education Week, Dec. 13, 1989.)

In 1988, Mr. Hawkins co-wrote the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Act, and last year, he helped usher a major vocational-education bill through the House.

Highlighting his concerns that all poor and minority children be assured educational equity and access, Mr. Hawkins introduced a bill last month that would require states to “equalize” per-pupil funding across school districts as a condition for federal education aid. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1990.)

He has also been an influential player in the battle for child-care legislation and an outspoken critic of Administration proposals on issues ranging from school funding to parental choice.

Mr. Hawkins hinted last week that he has become frustrated by the political and bureaucratic hurdles that can stymie change.

In a Jan. 26 statement, Mr. Hawkins said his decision to resign--which came as a surprise to many in the education community--followed “a great deal of soul-searching.”

“I think I can focus on a few things much better as just an ordinary citizen,” Mr. Hawkins said in an interview. He outlined plans to travel around the country speaking on education, participating in conferences, and meeting with educators, parents, and foundation officials. ''I think I can do this better without any partisan political connotation,” he added.

His goal, he said, is to help “mobilize citizen support” to make education the “nation’s number-one priority.”

Referring to a recent Economic Policy Institute study arguing that the United States devotes a smaller share of its resources to education than has been proclaimed by recent administrations, Mr. Hawkins voiced dismay over “top federal officials’ misinforming the public.”

“It’s very frustrating to an individual who wants to see some action,” he said.

A Consensus Builder

In interviews last week, education advocates praised Mr. Hawkins for his “gentle consensus building” and his ability to approach issues from a humanistic perspective.

“One of the things he’s given the Congress and the committee is this incredible conscience,” said Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association. “One of his greatest legacies is in getting the Congress, the Administration, and the committee to deal with essential human needs.”

When Mr. Hawkins took over as chairman of the education committee in 1984 after the death of Carl D. Perkins, “there had been some expectation that he would be a caretaker chairman,” said Michael Casserly, associate director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “But the truth of the matter is, he has put a substantial mark on every single federal education program on the books.”

One of the challenges facing Mr. Hawkins in his remaining tenure concerns child care.

Mr. Hawkins concedes that whatever bill emerges is likely to allow the use of some federal aid for religious child care--which he has opposed--paving the way for a court battle on the provision’s constitutionality.

In the meantime, a battle with the House Ways and Means Committee has bogged down the measure he supports, which would offer aid for school-based child care and provide child-care assistance for low-income parents through a grant program. Ways and Means would prefer to channel most of the funding through existing block grants.

Though he fears “a compromise bill may surface that will be attractive because it would spend less money” without sufficient attention to education, Mr. Hawkins said he did not expect his departure to thwart the legislation. “I think there is enough support out there to carry a child-care bill,” he said.

Representative Ford, his apparent heir, “supports the same approach as I do,” Mr. Hawkins added.

Rather than conferring “lame duck” status, the timing of Mr. Hawkins’s announcement, Mr. Casserly argued, “puts him in a stronger position” to promote his agenda.

“It’s hard to believe that Mr. Hawkins’s history before the House and the credibility that it has won’t speak quite loudly with the members when it comes time to push the buttons,” he said.

Helen Blank, senior program associate for the Children’s Defense Fund, added, “We hope he goes out in a burst of glory for children.”

Mr. Hawkins cited his work, as a state legislator, on a bill funding child-care centers in California prior to World War II as one of his proudest accomplishments.

Passage of the child-care legislation he is now seeking would be an appropriate send-off, said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “It would be nice if that is part of the monument to him,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 1990 edition of Education Week as Hawkins To Retire After His 28th Year in Congress