Education Aide Leaves 27-Year Legacy of Quiet Influence

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When Congress adjourns this fall, a revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act will have given the major federal education programs a new emphasis.

The end of the session will also signal a new chapter in the career of John F. Jennings, who has been instrumental in shaping that legislation--more so than most of the lawmakers he has served as an aide on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Mr. Jennings, whose choirboy looks betray his 51 years, is retiring after an unparalleled 27 years on the committee's staff.

Only its chairman, Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich.--who is also leaving Congress at the end of the year--has served the panel longer. And when it comes to education issues, perhaps only the influence of a committee chairman exceeds that of the unflappable Mr. Jennings.

"Nobody is irreplaceable around here, but the fact is, I look at the committee and I don't see anybody ready to step in with his kind of qualifications," Mr. Ford said. "He's got a scholar's mind with a lot of pragmatic experience."

"When all of us arrive here, we feel we bring the ideas that never got to Washington before," Mr. Ford continued. "Jennings has been able, with one after another new member of the committee, to walk them through where this evolutionary process is taking us."

Mr. Jennings's withdrawal from Capitol Hill comes at a time when lawmakers and the Clinton Administration are making the most dramatic changes in policy that Congress has contemplated since it first took an active role in education with the enactment of the original E.S.E.A. in 1965.

From Access to Standards

At that time, access to education for minorities and low-income children was the key objective of the law and its cornerstone, the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program. But the law that will be enacted this fall will prod states and districts to improve the quality of schools by requiring them to set high curricular standards.

It is a transformation that corresponds with Mr. Jennings's own evolving beliefs as the committee's chief education counsel.

"I do believe in standards now; I didn't a few years ago," he said in an interview. "It does a kid no good to be in a program that isn't any good."

"I think I have learned, which I knew intellectually but have seen anew, that just because things were done a certain way in the past doesn't mean they should be done that way in the future," he said.

Mr. Jennings, who is universally known as Jack, describes his early years as "the typical ethnic Catholic background." His father was a policeman, his mother was a housewife, and they had five children.

"If you were an Irish Catholic boy growing up in the 50's in Chicago, you became one of the three P's--priest, politician, or policeman," Mr. Jennings said. "My mother wouldn't let me become a policeman, and I tried the seminary."

After five years at the local diocesan seminary, which served as a high school and earned him some college credits, Mr. Jennings turned to more secular pursuits. He enrolled in Loyola University, where he became active in the Illinois College Young Democrats.

As a law student at Northwestern University, Mr. Jennings was asked by the local Democratic ward committeeman, Rep. Roman Pucinski, to be the precinct captain for his neighborhood of about 500 voters. Mr. Jennings was able to turn out a Democratic majority in most major elections, even though the precinct had previously had a Republican tilt.

In 1967, Mr. Pucinski became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee's Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education. He lost his first subcommittee vote and promptly called Chicago.

A Call From Washington

"I was sworn into the Illinois bar one day and into the D.C. bar the next," recalled Mr. Jennings, who became the subcommittee's staff director.

In 1973, Rep. Carl Perkins, D-Ky.--who began a 17-year reign over the full committee in 1967--took over the elementary and secondary education subcommittee and took the unusual step of announcing publicly that he would retain Mr. Jennings as staff director. Mr. Jennings also joined the full committee as associate counsel.

Over the next 11 years, the lawyer and the chairman cemented a bond that grew stronger the longer they worked together. Mr. Jennings said he was attracted by Mr. Perkins's "constancy of purpose" in trying to help the poor people in his district and across the country.

"A number of other politicians are buffeted by publicity or are very inconsistent," Mr. Jennings said.

Among the few decorations in Mr. Jennings's office in the Rayburn Office Building are two that recall his time with Mr. Perkins. One is a photo of the chairman shortly before his death in 1984; the other, a gift from Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., is a watercolor of Mr. Perkins's Kentucky home.

"This job and what I do," Mr. Jennings said, taking note of the souvenirs, "is never very far from my mind."

Upon Mr. Perkins's death, the new chairman, Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, D-Calif., asked Mr. Jennings to remain in his post. When Mr. Ford succeeded Mr. Hawkins in 1990, Mr. Jennings thought about leaving, but did not. He dropped his subcommittee title, as Mr. Ford opted to chair a different subcommittee, but stayed on as counsel to the full committee.

In 1992, he again contemplated leaving. But with the reauthorization of the E.S.E.A on the horizon, Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the subcommittee chairman, asked him to stay on another two years.

"It made sense to help rethink what I started with," Mr. Jennings said.

'A Key Player'

He said he was also swayed by the opportunity--for the first time in 13 years--to work with a Democratic administration, and one with an education agenda he personally agrees with.

"I like to use my interest in politics to further good policy," Mr. Jennings said in explaining why he has not left Congress for a more lucrative and less stressful occupation.

While Mr. Jennings may be little known outside of Washington, his impact on policy has been considerable, and has grown over the years.

At the time he began his work here, House members were more directly involved in decisionmaking and writing legislation. As Congress has taken on a broader array of issues, and committees have proliferated, elected officials have come to rely much more on their aides to work with constituents, develop expertise in a particular field, and draft legislation.

And Mr. Jennings has become the dominant figure in education.

"There probably isn't an important [education] issue on which Jack hasn't been a key player," said Michael Edwards, the manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association. "He is the one person who really ties the creation of these [education] programs to today's intellectual and political reality."

Colleagues and lobbyists describe Mr. Jennings as at once disarming and demanding, a consensus-builder and a partisan.

His low-key demeanor, they say, enables him to deal effectively with a 25-year-old junior staffer as well as 20-year Congressional veterans. But his intellectual standards mean that he rarely suffers fools and that arguments must be well reasoned before they go beyond his desk.

'A Gloved Fist'

"Jack and I get along fairly well, [and] Jack has never been afraid to tell me I'm full of crap," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "You have to defend and work your ideas."

"He used a gloved fist, and the glove was information, knowledge, and logic," said Andy Hartman, a former Republican staff director on the committee who is now the executive director of the National Institute for Literacy. "When a report would come out, instead of putting it in a pile on his desk, he read it and would quote it."

Associates also say that Mr. Jennings is keenly aware of how to most productively negotiate the nuances of legislation. He is conscious of the institution's inherent slowness, they say, and always tries to keep moving negotiations along.

"If you've got an argument, he'll listen to it, but if you're passive, he'll walk right by you and move the process along," said Tom Wolanin, an official in the Education Department's legislative-affairs office who used to work with Mr. Jennings on the committee.

Several colleagues cited an incident where Mr. Jennings walked out of a staff conference after only a few minutes, effectively ending it.

It was a demonstration of power, they said, and also a statement of Mr. Jennings's disgust at the lack of progress on the issue at hand, an education-reform bill that included pieces of President Bush's America 2000 agenda. His silent verdict turned out to be correct; the bill was rejected by Congress several times, although portions of it resurfaced in the Clinton Administration's Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

The Intimidation Factor

While Mr. Jennings usually presents a genial and collected persona, colleagues say he has been known to raise his voice.

One former House aide recalls disparaging Goals 2000 at a staff meeting.

"He called me a Nazi, commie, feminist, rattled off a whole host of expletives about how I was so negative and how we have to support the President," the former aide said.

A current House aide said: "I started out being really scared of him. Then we had a few big shouting matches, and I don't think I'm scared of him any more."

"He's very intimidating, and that's part of his effectiveness," the aide said. "You hate it when you're going through House negotiations, but you love it when you're [bargaining] with the Senate."

Many aides recall Mr. Jennings as a consensus-builder, and say he has often worked to secure some Republican support for legislation, particularly Mr. Goodling's vote.

But with lifelong Democrats for parents, it was hard not to be partisan, said Mr. Jennings, who sees himself as following the tradition of Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson.

Mr. Jennings helped House Democrats "play the gridlock game," said Charles E.M. Kolb, who often engaged in legislative negotiations as an Education Department and White House official in the Bush Administration.

The Democrats, Mr. Kolb noted, have been more receptive to the Goals 2000 program than to Mr. Bush's America 2000, despite their similar emphasis on standards.

Lately, Mr. Jennings has been swamped preparing for his last big negotiation, the House-Senate conference on the E.S.E.A. reauthorization that began last week. (See related story.)

After the bill is passed and signed by the President, Mr. Jennings plans to take some time off, and do some writing on the standards-setting movement in education.

"Since I've been in this position for so long, I want to use what I've learned to help people understand the process better and understand the issues better," he said.

Despite offers from law firms, Mr. Jennings said he will probably join a Washington-area think tank, where he can continue writing on education issues.

"I've decided to turn down the big money," he said.

Vol. 14, Issue 04

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