Kennedy’s Illness Raises Doubts for NCLB

By Alyson Klein — June 09, 2008 4 min read

It was never going to be easy to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, which has come under fire from the left to the right of American politics.

But now that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a key author of the law and the chairman of the Senate education committee, has been diagnosed with a form of brain cancer, prospects for the federal education law’s reauthorization have become even murkier. Sen. Kennedy, who helped shepherd the law through Congress in 2001 with broad bipartisan support, is considered a master legislator, particularly when it comes to helping reach a consensus across the political spectrum.

“He’s a giant force in the Senate,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. “He really gets things moving and senators key off him. ... Without Kennedy [as a full participant], things get set back in the timing.”

But, he said, the impact on NCLB and other education legislation won’t be clear until more is known about the medical prognosis for the 76-year-old senator. “[The question is], will he be active enough to exercise some leadership?” Mr. Jennings said.

Sen. Kennedy was recovering from surgery last week to remove part of the malignant glioma from his brain and is expected to undergo further treatment. He is hoping to resume talks on the renewal of the NCLB law after lawmakers wrap up work on a long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, his spokeswoman, Melissa Wagoner, said.

A GOP Friend

Sen. Kennedy had hoped to reach agreement on a reauthorization bill for the NCLB law this year, but prospects for such a deal were looking slim even before doctors discovered his illness. It’s highly unlikely the law will be reauthorized until a new president takes office, education lobbyists say.

Although he’s known as one of the Senate’s leading liberal voices, Sen. Kennedy has a close working relationship with Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee,

“They are genuinely friends and collegial colleagues,” said Craig Orfield, Sen. Enzi’s spokesman. “They are of like mind when it comes to the importance of bipartisan compromise and productivity.”

Sen. Kennedy is also in a good position to collaborate with either of the two presumptive presidential nominees on an NCLB reauthorization bill. He made a splashy endorsement in January of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois for the Democratic nomination, and he has teamed up with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on an immigration-overhaul bill and other legislation. (“Candidates Are at Odds Over K-12,” this issue. )

Sen. Kennedy has continued to support the core principles of the NCLB law, which seeks to make schools more accountable for their students’ academic progress.

But Sen. Kennedy has said recently that the law should be more flexible in rewarding schools for individual students’ progress, and that the federal government needs to provide more resources to help turn around struggling schools.

“The thought of working without his leadership is something I have a very hard time grappling with,” said William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based advocacy organization that supports the central tenets of the law. “Kennedy has really been committed and is such a forceful person.”

Although senators have been negotiating on an NCLB reauthorization bill this spring, the presidential election has made the political landscape uncertain.

If Sen. Kennedy became unable to preside over the reauthorization of the NCLB law, Rep. Miller would be the only one of the four main original congressional authors of the law who continued to hold a leadership role on one of the education committees.

“That’s an awful lot to put on [Rep. Miller’s] shoulders, in terms of keeping NCLB intact,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington.

“You could imagine that people who don’t have any pride of authorship on NCLB would be willing to throw it in the trash can and come up with something quite different for the next version,” said Mr. Petrilli, who served in the Department of Education during President Bush’s first term.

Leadership Vacuum

If Sen. Kennedy’s health made it difficult for him to continue serving as chairman, it would create “a vacuum,” said Mr. Jennings, who is a former longtime education aide to House Democrats. “I do not see anybody who would have the same political prestige or weight that Kennedy has.”

It’s unclear who would take the helm of the Senate education panel if Sen. Kennedy were unable to continue serving.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, whose state is suing the federal government over funding for the law, is the second-ranking Democrat on the education committee.

Sen. Dodd would likely have to give up his post as the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee to become the head of the education panel, because senators are rarely permitted to lead two major committees simultaneously. It’s unclear whether he would be willing to change his chairmanship.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland is the most senior Democrat on the Senate education panel who is not currently heading another major committee.

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Kennedy’s Illness Raises Doubts for NCLB


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