Reporter’s Notebook

By Mark Walsh — September 21, 2004 5 min read
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Sen. Kennedy Stresses Early Childhood Education

One day after his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was thinking about one of his favorite causes: education.

The senior senator from the host state took time from his whirlwind week to stop by a forum on early childhood education July 28 at the Massachusetts Statehouse on Beacon Hill.

“Talk about early childhood education—62 of [us] are under 12,” Mr. Kennedy said, in a reference to his celebrated family. “So I have an interest in it.”

The forum was put together by Massachusetts Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, both Democrats, with help from Sen. Kennedy, who is the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Welfare, and Pensions Committee.

The State Legislative Leaders Foundation, a Centerville, Mass.-based organization that educates top state lawmakers across the country on various issues, also sponsored the forum.

In an example of the kind of coziness found at political conventions, corporate lobbyists from pharmaceutical companies, consulting firms, and other industries were all in attendance—in part because the event offered them a chance to hobnob with state leaders. The Massachusetts Statehouse has been closed to the general public during the convention because of security concerns.

Sen. Kennedy told the group that researchers have learned a great deal more in recent years about how children’s brains function, and this has benefited policymakers.

“A child is influenced enormously by the environment they are in,” he said. “They are enormously influenced by the people around them, so it takes qualified people” to help them learn.

The senator said he hopes to keep early childhood issues on the front burner in Congress, but that the states can be good laboratories for experimentation.

“I am very hopeful I can keep this on the national agenda,” Sen. Kennedy said.

“I know this isn’t a political event,” he added, drawing chuckles. “But I do hope I’ll be chairman of the [education] committee after November.”

With that, Sen. Kennedy’s aides hustled him on his way to his next event: a reception for his Democratic Senate colleagues at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

—Mark Walsh

Kids Today

Democratic National Convention

Read all our convention coverage.

Audio Extras:

  • Education Week editor Mark Walsh reports on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s appearance at an early childhood education forum. (2:27) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Young people were a focus of the Democratic convention’s second day, with a 7th grader drawing cheers with her prime-time speech, and a special youth caucus held by the party.

“John Kerry wants to make class sizes smaller,” Ilana Wexler, the 13-year-old founder of Kids for Kerry, said during her speech July 27 at the FleetCenter.

Ms. Wexler elicited a burst of applause from an audience of some 20,000 attendees when she scolded Vice President Dick Cheney over his recent use of a vulgarity in an exchange in the U.S. Senate.

“He used a really bad word,” Ms. Wexler said. “If I said that word, I would be put in a ‘timeout.’ I think he should be put in a timeout.”

Earlier in the day, hundreds of young people gathered in the Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood for what was billed as the DNC Youth Caucus. The Hynes Center has been teeming with high school and college-age students throughout the convention because of special events geared to them. In addition to the caucus, election-training sessions are being offered by Democratic GAIN, an organization for campaign professionals that is technically independent of the party.

At the youth caucus, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told participants that only 40 percent of potential voters under age 30 turned out in the last presidential election.

“The single most important task that our party has is to get young voters out,” she said.

Liberals in Training

Besides hearing from young people who lead groups such as Young Democrats of America and College Democrats of America, the caucus participants were treated to remarks from professional wrestlers from the World Wrestling Entertainment, the lead singer of the rock band Everclear, Art Alexakis, who is also a Democratic delegate from Oregon, and Sen. John Kerry’s daughters, Vanessa, 27, and Alexandra, 30.

Mr. Alexakis, who led the caucus in a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” noted that he had encountered former Democratic presidential nominees George McGovern and Walter Mondale earlier in the day.

“Both of those guys weren’t afraid to use the word liberal,” Mr. Alexakis said, perhaps believing it unnecessary to add that both were trounced in their respective general election races. “Liberal is back, and don’t be afraid of that word.”

The Kerry daughters drew strong applause with brief discussions of their father’s proposal for national service and college aid.

Vanessa Kerry speaks.
Sen. John Kerry’s daughter, Vanessa, speaks at the youth caucus. —Photograph by Mark Walsh/Education Week

“Our father is someone who really listens,” said Vanessa Kerry. “That’s the kind of leadership we need starting in November.”

As the Youth Caucus meeting broke up, another Democratic GAIN training session was set to begin, with a group of high school students filing into the hall to hear from Democratic political operative James Carville.

Mike Wallace, a 16-year-old from Canton, Mass., said the week has been exciting.

“Some of the stuff [in the training] is over our heads, like how to organize your college campus” he said. “But it’s fun.”

Lenaye Howard, another 16-year-old from Smithfield, Utah, got more interested in politics when she took Advanced Placement history this past school year.

“Utah is a conservative state, so it’s nice to be here,” said the young Democrat. “It’s nice to see how the other side of the country thinks.”

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