School & District Management

Kennedy Gone; Power Shuffles Likely on K-12

By Alyson Klein — August 28, 2009 5 min read
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The death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy leaves a void in the landscape of education politics, with no obvious heir to his leadership on K-12 issues in the U.S. Senate.

The Massachusetts Democrat, one of the architects of the nearly 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act—on which he joined forces across party lines with President George W. Bush—was celebrated for his mastery of the legislative process as well as for his passionate advocacy for children. (“Kennedy Put Imprint on K-12, Social Issues With Fierce Advocacy,” this issue.)

For decades, it was known in Washington that “all roads in federal education policy run through Kennedy, no matter who is president, no matter what the makeup of Congress is,” said Vic Klatt, who served as an aide to Republicans on the House education committee for 15 years and worked in the U.S. Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush.

“His no longer being on the scene leaves a giant hole—giant,” said Mr. Klatt, now a lobbyist with Van Scoyoc Associates.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former Denver schools superintendent, may also assume greater influence over education issues in the Senate.

Sen. Kennedy, who died Aug. 25 after nearly 47 years in the Senate, left a lot of unfinished business at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which he chaired. Though the committee worked on legislation to reform health care—Mr. Kennedy’s signature issue—during the chairman’s absence for treatment of a brain tumor, the panel also has important education items on its plate.

Those include oversight of the education portions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and what is likely to be a very tricky reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law.

Even though Sen. Kennedy was “a dedicated liberal,” he “would have compromised this way or that way in order to get legislation through” the Senate, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.

“I’m not sure there is somebody who could take over who would have that ability at this time,” said Mr. Jennings, who served as a top aide to Democrats on the House education committee for nearly three decades.

House Ascendant

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, is also among those in Congress who may assume greater influence over education.

For now, much of the congressional action on education has shifted to the U.S. House of Representatives, where Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., heads the Education and Labor Committee.

Rep. Miller, himself a 34-year Capitol Hill veteran and close confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow California Democrat, was a driving force in gaining bipartisan support for the NCLB bill in the House.

Although Rep. Miller has worked closely with Republicans on issues including the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, when the gop held the majority in the House, an ability to reach across the aisle isn’t as important in that chamber, analysts say. In the House, bills can pass with a simple majority. In the Senate, legislation typically needs the support of 60 members to avoid a filibuster.

The Senate has a number of Democrats who could seize a higher profile on education issues, observers say, including senior members of the education committee such as Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

And many in the education community have high hopes for Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. A former superintendent of the Denver schools, he was appointed to the chamber after the 2008 election to fill the seat vacated when Sen. Ken Salazar was tapped as U.S. secretary of the interior.

Other Democrats such as Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Evan Bayh of Indiana, both former governors, may also step forward.

Those Democrats are “the ones to watch” as the political climate for education becomes increasingly “post-partisan and reform-oriented,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, and a former aide to President Bill Clinton.

Senate Contenders

It’s less clear who will take Sen. Kennedy’s role at the helm of the Senate education committee, a transition with the potential to set off a cascade of changes.

First in seniority among the Democratic majority is Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, now the chairman of the Banking Committee, who was one of Sen. Kennedy’s closest colleagues.

The banking panel deals with a range of issues of paramount importance to Sen. Dodd’s home state, said James Thurber, the director of the Center of Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, in Washington.

But Sen. Dodd has taken considerable heat in Connecticut for his handling of the financial crisis and “is in a bad situation for an incumbent senator,” Mr. Thurber said. That might make it tougher for Mr. Dodd to step away from issues that are key to the Nutmeg State, Mr. Thurber said.

Since Sen. Kennedy’s illness, though, Sen. Dodd also has been a key figure in developing health-care-overhaul legislation, which is partly in the jurisdiction of the education panel. Such a measure is a top priority for congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama. And because it was also a passionate cause for Sen. Kennedy, Mr. Dodd may want to see the current overhaul through, in part to honor his friend, Mr. Thurber said.

Lawmakers are typically not permitted to chair two committees simultaneously, but there is some speculation that the Senate could temporarily suspend those rules so that Sen. Dodd could continue his work on a health-care overhaul.

The next Democratic lawmaker in seniority is Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who heads the Senate appropriations subcommittee that deals with education spending.

Sen. Harkin would have to give up his chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which deals with issues important to the Hawkeye State, to take the top spot on the education committee.

But Mr. Harkin, who has long been a champion of students in special education and of federal funding for school facilities, would likely be interested in the education chairmanship if Sen. Dodd declines to take it, education lobbyists say. That would put Sen. Harkin in charge of both policy and money on education, health, and other issues.

“It’s the best possible world if you like Harkin,” Mr. Thurber said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Kennedy Gone; Power Shuffles Likely on K-12

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