School & District Management

Kennedy Mourned as Education Champion

August 26, 2009 5 min read
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Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a leading voice in Congress on education matters in the decades before his death Aug. 25, is being remembered for his strong convictions as well as his political acumen and willingness to work across the partisan divide.

For nearly a half-century in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Kennedy was a steadfast champion of the working class and the poor, and a powerful liberal advocate on education, as well as health care, civil rights, and other issues. He had been either the chairman—as he was at the time of his death—or ranking Democrat on what is currently named the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee since 1981.

In such positions, he played a central role in shaping—and reshaping—major education laws and programs, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Head Start program.

His death at age 77 at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass., after battling a brain tumor evoked tributes from across the political spectrum.

“He dedicated his life in public service to ensuring fairness and opportunity for all people,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “I drew inspiration from Senator Kennedy throughout my career, and will miss his voice as a champion of education reform.”

Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, said the nation lost “an extraordinary leader” and a “legendary political force” with his death.

Mr. Gregg, a former chairman of the Senate education committee, collaborated closely with Mr. Kennedy, most notably eight years ago in crafting the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest version of the ESEA. He said the two of them had had a “remarkable working relationship” despite their political differences.

“During this time, Ted was always willing to not only reach across the aisle, but had the unique ability to pull people together to get things done, with both substance and a great sense of humor,” Sen. Gregg said. “He was undoubtedly one of the single most effective senators in the history of our country.”

Vic Klatt, a lobbyist and former Republican staff member on Capitol Hill, said that, for decades, it was understood in Washington that “all roads in federal education policy run through Kennedy, no matter who is president, no matter what the make up of Congress is.”

Additional Resources

For more information on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his contributions to education, visit his U.S. Senate page, which includes a timeline of his work in the Senate and an issues page on education.

Politics K-12 Blog: Remembering Kennedy as a Champion of Education

From the Archives
Past Education Week stories on Sen. Kennedy:

Kennedy Faults Bush Justice Dept. (October 8, 2008)

Kennedy’s Illness Raises Doubts for NCLB (June 11, 2008)

On Senate Panel, a Different Dynamic for NCLB Renewal (September 26, 2007)

Kennedy Backs Hurricane Aid for Private Schools (October 5, 2005)

Kennedy Bill Would Give States, Districts Leeway (Septemeber 22, 2004)

Kennedy Hints at Amending ‘No Child’ Law (February 25, 2004)

Better Teacher Training (February 1, 1990)

Kennedy Unveils $330-Million Plan for Volunteerism (August 2, 1989)

Kennedy Youth-Service Plan Would Involve Schools (June 14, 1989)

Added Mr. Klatt, now a lobbyist for Van Scoyoc Associates: “His no longer being on the scene leaves a giant hole, giant.”

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, described Sen. Kennedy in a statement as a “longtime advocate” for the nation’s teachers and students.

“Senator Ted Kennedy was a strong, courageous leader in protecting the basic right of all students to attend great public schools,” Mr. Van Roekel said.

Decades of Service

Mr. Kennedy was first elected to the Senate in 1962, when his brother John F. Kennedy was president, and served longer than all but two other senators in history. Over the decades, he put his imprint on every major piece of social legislation to clear the Congress. His own hopes of reaching the White House may have been doomed by the scandal that followed a 1969 auto accident in which he was involved in Massachusetts that left a young woman dead.

He challenged President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries, but ultimately bowed out of the race for the nomination after getting roundly beaten by Mr. Carter and losing a rules battle at the Democratic National Convention.

Although his career was shadowed by family tragedies and tabloid-style scrutiny of his personal life, Sen. Kennedy in his later years—especially after his second marriage, in 1992—came to be regarded as a statesman on Capitol Hill. He was widely seen as one of the most effective, hardworking Washington lawmakers of his time.

“There are very few people who have touched the life of this nation in the same breadth and the same order of magnitude,” President Barack Obama said in April as he signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which greatly expands volunteer-service opportunities for Americans, including middle and high school students.

NCLB Champion

Sen. Kennedy helped ensure broad, bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind, the ESEA reauthorization that President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002 as one of his administration’s top domestic priorities. The law—with its emphasis on test-based accountability for students’ academic progress—has also faced strong criticism over the years, including from many school officials, teachers’-union leaders, and classroom educators.

Sen. Kennedy defended the law in a 2007 speech to the National School Boards Association, even as he said that funding levels were inadequate and that other key changes were needed in the next reauthorization of the ESEA. A new version still has not been enacted, and the process has been on hold since the 2008 presidential campaign.

“Since the law’s enactment, schools have faced many challenges in implementation—the most serious of which has been a lack of funding,” Sen. Kennedy said two years ago. “Problems were so severe in some places [that] local leaders called for the law’s suspension or repeal. But, turning back the clock on the law is no solution, especially for the neediest students who gain the most from its reforms.”

His determination earned respect in a number of ideological quarters.

“I don’t believe that [Senator Kennedy] ever backed away from sort of open embrace of the principles and practices of No Child Left Behind, even after it became controversial,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former assistant education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. “He kept his word, kept his deal.”

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, also based in Washington, and a former longtime education aide to House Democrats, said the death of Sen. Kennedy may well impede future efforts to reauthorize the main federal law in precollegiate education.

“The unique thing that is lost is that Kennedy would have gotten [a reauthorization] bill through the Senate,” he said.

Mr. Jennings said that while Sen. Kennedy was “a dedicated liberal,” he “would have compromised this way or that way in order to get legislation through. … I’m not sure there is somebody who could take over who would have that ability at this time because the conflicts on NCLB are so sharp.”

Education Week Staff Writer Alyson Klein and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Kennedy Mourned as Education Champion


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