School & District Management

Kennedy Put Imprint on K-12, Social Issues With Fierce Advocacy

September 01, 2009 4 min read
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Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will be remembered as a staunch advocate for education who used his immense political skills and his willingness to bridge the partisan divide to advance policies supporting students and their schools.

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 voice on health care, civil rights, and other issues, as well as education. He had been either the chairman—as he was at the time of his death—or ranking Democrat on what is currently called the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee since 1981.

He played a central role in shaping—or reshaping—major education laws and programs, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Head Start.

His death Aug. 25 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, R-N.H., said the nation had lost “an extraordinary leader” and a “legendary political force.”

Mr. Gregg, a former chairman of the Senate education committee, collaborated closely with Mr. Kennedy 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.

“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.

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 teachers and students.

The American Association of School Administrators highlighted Sen. Kennedy’s work on a wide range of measures to help children, noting that he “was present at the creation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and was a primary author of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

He was one the primary authors of the federal direct-loan program for college students, and a staunch proponent of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the anti-sex-discrimination law that is credited, in particular, with boosting the participation of women and girls in school and college sports.

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 Congress.

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)

Although his career was shadowed by family tragedies and tabloid-style scrutiny of his personal life, Sen. Kennedy in his later years came to be regarded as a statesman on Capitol Hill and one of the hardest-working and most effective 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 expands volunteer-service opportunities for Americans, including middle and high school students.

Carmel Martin, an assistant education secretary in the Obama administration and formerly Sen. Kennedy’s chief education adviser, said she recalled his generosity as well as his political and policy savvy.

“What I was most struck by was how much he knew about the policy issues that we were working on, and how smart he was in terms of policy as well as strategy, and how hard he was willing to work,” she said.

NCLB Champion

Sen. Kennedy played a key role in drafting and ensuring broad, bipartisan support for the NCLB Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002 as one of his top domestic priorities. The law—with its emphasis on test-based accountability for students’ academic progress—has faced strong criticism over the years from school officials and teachers.

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 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 rspect 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 Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former assistant education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. “He kept his word, kept his deal.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Kennedy Put Imprint On K-12, Social Issues With Fierce Advocacy


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