Educators Compete for Seats In Next Congress
Standing in the Clover Hill High School library one recent Thursday afternoon, Democratic congressional candidate Warren A. Stewart did his best to respond as students peppered him with questions on everything from school vouchers, gun control, and abortion to why a working citizen under age 18 must pay taxes but is not permitted to vote.
Mr. Stewart, who spoke to juniors and seniors at the school in suburban Chesterfield County outside Richmond last month, told the students that, if elected, he would be an independent voice in Congress.
"I can't be bought," he said. "I can't be sold. I can't be controlled by those [monied] interests."
For most candidates for Congress, visiting a school is de rigueur when campaigning. But for Mr. Stewart, a longtime teacher and administrator who recently retired as the superintendent of the nearby 2,000-student Goochland County schools, the setting is far more familiar.
And he is not alone. From Virginia to California, in Maine and Montana, a number of current and former K-12 educators with a range of political affiliations are running for the House in next week's elections. While many, including Mr. Stewart, appear to be in long-shot campaigns, several could well garner enough votes to take a seat in the Capitol come January.
Not the First
If they succeed, they will be far from the first. One of the best-known former educators in Congress is retiring: Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Mr. Goodling worked as a teacher and principal, ultimately serving as the superintendent of the Spring Grove, Pa., school district for eight years.
Other educator-members include Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who taught government and history for 16 years at Yorkville High School in northern Illinois, and Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., a senior Democrat on the education committee, who taught at two different Michigan high schools for a total of 10 years.
Mr. Goodling, who often mentions his days as an educator when his committee is at work, said such experience can be beneficial for lawmakers. "They understand the problem," he said.
Across the country, educators are throwing their hats in the political ring.
In Maine, Republican and former teacher Jane Amero is taking on Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Allen in the 1st Congressional District. Though she expects to have raised more than $400,000 for her campaign, recent polls suggest she trails Mr. Allen by a significant margin.
Ms. Amero has a range of education-related experience, including four years as a high school teacher, six years on a local school board, and six years on Maine's state board of education, where she served as the chairwoman from 1989 to 1992. Currently, the moderate Republican is the minority leader in the state Senate.
"[Education] is the reason I got involved in public service," she said. Ms. Amero has already requested a seat on the education committee, should she be elected. "That's where my passion is," she said. "That's where I think I can be most effective."
Ms. Amero said her top priorities would be "tying less strings" to federal money for schools and working to ensure that the federal government picks up 40 percent of schools' special education costs, as was initially pledged in federal special education legislation. "Before we start jumping into other ideas in education, let's look at the ones already mandated," she said.
Meanwhile, in Montana, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan, a Democrat, is in a tough race with Republican Dennis Rehberg for the state's at-large House seat, which is being vacated by GOP Rep. Rick Hill. Ms. Keenan is well known in education policy circles and is now finishing out a one-year term as the president of the the Council of Chief State School Officers. She taught special education for 13 years before taking her state post.
A recent campaign ad highlights the state chief's education experience. "For 12 years, I fought for smaller class size, higher academic standards, and accountability," Ms. Keenan says in the television ad. "In Congress, I'll work with both parties to make sure that no child is left behind."
Another tight race is taking place in the 15th Congressional District in California, where Democrat Mike Honda is highlighting his background as an educator. The front page of his campaign's Internet site proclaims: "As a former teacher and principal, improving our schools has always been my focus—that's why I'm running for Congress.
And June Gold, a Republican seeking to unseat fifth-term Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, retired in June after teaching for 11 years in the New Haven, Conn., public schools. She said state party leaders expressed interest in her education background when they approached her about running for the 3rd Congressional District seat.
Ms. Gold, who is facing an uphill battle against her popular and well-financed opponent, supports more local control over federal dollars. "Every school has a different fabric, every school has a different make-up," she said.
In the Old Dominion
Back in Virginia's 7th Congressional District, Mr. Stewart has said that, if he is elected, education will be his primary focus, and that he would seek to serve on the House education committee.
"It will be the only area in which I initiate legislation," he said. He added, however, that his first priorities would be to support efforts to shore up Social Security, add a prescription- drug benefit under Medicare, and pay down the national debt.
The former district superintendent has laid out two education proposals so far. The first is a "National Security Education Act," modeled after the National Defense Education Act signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1958, which would allow teachers to pay off their higher education costs through teaching. The second is a plan for "no strings attached" construction money for school districts.
But Mr. Stewart is among those educators who face tough odds on Nov. 7. State Del. Eric I. Cantor, his Republican opponent in the race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., has far outpaced him in fund raising in the Republican-leaning district.
Mr. Stewart did get a recent boost when the National Education Association's political action committee endorsed his bid, and cut him a check for $1,000.
"He's an educator of 27 years," said Jean Bankos, the president of the Virginia Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA. "That doesn't always mean that somebody's a great candidate," she acknowledged, but she added that she believes Mr. Stewart would be an effective advocate for public schools in Congress.
"It gives him a unique perspective to have worked in the trenches," she said.
Vol. 20, Issue 9, Pages 25, 28Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as Educators Compete for Seats In Next Congress