Kerry Record on Education Mostly Liberal

February 18, 2004 9 min read
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When education comes up for consideration in the U.S. Senate, a veteran Democrat from Massachusetts is almost guaranteed to be knee-deep in the debate.

Election 2004

But it isn’t John Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nomination. It’s Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who casts a tall shadow over the state’s longtime junior senator when it comes to school issues.

But while Sen. Kerry has made his policy mark mostly in other areas, especially foreign relations, he’s no stranger to education matters and at times has jumped headlong into the fray.

Perhaps most noteworthy was a controversial speech in 1998 in which he delivered some barbed words for teachers’ unions and public school “bureaucracies.” He called for making every public school “essentially a charter school,” free from the rules that typically govern teacher hiring and placement decisions, and for ending “teacher tenure as we know it.”

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Read the accompanying excerpted comments, “Kerry on Education.”

Union officials recall that they sat down with him soon after to express their dismay.

Months later, when Mr. Kerry introduced a bipartisan bill— called the Comprehensive School Improvement and Accountability Act—any offending edges had apparently been rubbed off. The measure, which never became law, earned letters of support from the two national teachers’ unions and other major education groups.

Indeed, during his nearly two decades in the Senate, Mr. Kerry has received high marks in the periodic voting scorecards tabulated by the two national unions.

“We are proud of his education record,” said Catherine A. Boudreau, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “He has a perfect, or near-perfect, voting record on behalf of education and educators, so we embrace his candidacy.”

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Kerry so far is sticking to generally liberal themes that find favor with core Democratic constituencies. He opposes school vouchers and advocates plans for increasing federal education aid, attracting and retaining high-quality teachers and principals, and expanding early-childhood support.

Like most of his rivals for the nomination, he’s also been criticizing the No Child Left Behind Act, calling for a rewrite of the federal law’s accountability demands—the very features he praised shortly before he cast an “aye” vote on the bill in 2001.

Last week, the 60-year-old candidate got some good news as he added contests in Virginia and Tennessee to the growing list of primaries and caucuses he has won. And the Democratic field narrowed yet again with the departure of retired U.S. Army General Wesley K. Clark.

A New Era?

Mr. Kerry—who was the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and an assistant district attorney before being elected to the first of four Senate terms in 1984—made only passing reference to education in his Feb. 10 victory speech before a packed and enthusiastic crowd at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. But he has talked up the issue at other times during his campaign.

He made money the centerpiece of his first major education address of the campaign, calling in November for a “national education trust fund” that would lock in substantial spending increases for special education and the No Child Left Behind Act.

“In my first hundred days, I will begin a new era of responsibility when it comes to our public schools,” he said at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Nov. 25. “I’ll take the politics out of public education funding. And I’ll end George Bush’s bait-and-switch.

“This president promised to give our schools the help they need—but he broke that promise and instead gave that money to the most powerful and wealthy people in our country.”

The speech, in which he discussed the trust fund and other education proposals, took a tone decidedly different from that of the education address he delivered almost six years ago.

“We can’t afford to be uncritical apologists for public schools that work for our bureaucrats, but not for our kids,” Sen. Kerry declared at Northeastern University in Boston in 1998. “There’s a crisis of leadership when you have some school committees that put politics ahead of children and learning. There are school boards larded down with decades’ worth of bureaucracy, and too often there are too many teachers’ unions which blur the lines between management and labor and fight for turf when they should be fighting for the tools to succeed.”

That speech, delivered when he was thought to be contemplating a run for president in 2000, ruffled feathers in the teachers’ unions.

“This in my mind perhaps was a ‘Sister Souljah moment,’” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He was standing up to a Democratic constituency group.”

In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made headlines and was judged to have gained politically when he criticized remarks he deemed racist by Sister Souljah, an African-American rap star.

"[Mr. Kerry] had to find a way to carve out a niche within the party to challenge Al Gore,” Mr. Sabato said of the context for the senator’s speech. “The other Democratic candidates [in 2004] really missed the boat in not using this speech against him.”

“I thought it was unfair, and I thought he was not as well educated as he could have been on that issue,” said Kathleen A. Kelley, the president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, when asked about Mr. Kerry’s 1998 remarks. “We sat down with him immediately after that speech.”

But Ms. Kelley—whose group is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which earlier this month endorsed Mr. Kerry—said she’s been impressed with his willingness to listen.

“He’s been very open to discussing differences,” she said. “Generally, he’s been extremely supportive of teachers, particularly, and public education.”

Union officials emphasize that Mr. Kerry ultimately worked closely with them on his 1999 education bill, which he introduced with Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore.

That wide-ranging legislation sought to provide competitive grants and incentives for states to implement voluntary comprehensive school reform efforts, invest in local childhood-development programs, and open “second chance” schools for students with chronic discipline problems.

It also contained measures to raise salaries and provide scholarships for potential teachers, offer professional development for principals, and encourage public school choice.

The bill attracted 13 co- sponsors—including Sens. Kennedy and John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat who is also seeking the 2004 nomination—but died a quiet death. That’s the fate of most proposed federal legislation, especially bills introduced by lawmakers who don’t serve on the committee with jurisdiction on the subject. Mr. Kerry has never served on the Senate education committee.

Still, a few of the ideas, such as helping principals and creating alternative schools for disruptive students, eventually trickled into the No Child Left Behind Act with prodding from Mr. Kerry.

He has been a “champion of principals,” said Stephen W. DeWitt, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

Mr. Kerry has also sought to make his education mark elsewhere. He worked with Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., on legislation to expand successful programs for children from birth to age 6 who are considered at risk of eventual academic failure.

And he has sponsored education amendments from time to time, on such matters as increasing education spending and providing tax incentives for school construction.

But overall, Washington observers say, it hasn’t been easy for Mr. Kerry to influence education policy, since the other Massachusetts senator, Mr. Kennedy, is Senate Democrats’ leading voice on the issue as the ranking minority member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Senators from the same state typically tend to focus on different policy areas, and Mr. Kerry’s well-known service in the Vietnam War and his subsequent anti-war activism made foreign policy a natural subject of interest.

A Record of ‘Hypocrisy’?

When it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act, in addition to complaints about funding, Mr. Kerry now attacks what he calls a “one-size-fits-all” approach in the centerpiece of President Bush’s school agenda and advocates amending the law’s core accountability demands.

“That means judging schools on more than just test scores,” the senator said in the Council Bluffs speech last November.

But shortly before the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 87-10 in December 2001, he delivered a floor speech with high praise for accountability measures that “sharply redefine” adequate yearly progress and require annual goals for raising student achievement. “I urge the administration to vigorously implement and enforce the provisions of this new law,” he said.

Even though Mr. Kerry has not clinched the nomination, Republicans are already testing their attack lines.

“Senator Kerry’s record on education is one of hypocrisy,” said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “As a United States senator, he voted for and helped to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. As a presidential candidate, he has criticized it because he thought supporting it would hurt him in a Democratic primary.”

Heather A. Higginbottom, the Kerry campaign’s deputy policy director, defended the senator’s stance. She said he has talked with many teachers, administrators, and parents who have expressed concerns about the law.

“I don’t think it’s backing off from accountability and high standards,” she said last week. “It’s making sure that [the law] works.”

Ms. Higginbottom said the campaign doesn’t yet have precise details on how it would rewrite the law’s accountability demands. “You need to bring a lot of people together to work this out,” she said.

Among the campaign’s external education advisers are Mark D. Gearan, who was an aide to President Clinton and now is the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and Jonathan Schnur, a former aide to both Mr. Clinton and Vice President Gore, and now the chief executive of New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City nonprofit group.

Interviews with supporters at the Kerry rally at George Mason University in northern Virginia last week suggested that, for most, education wasn’t a top-tier issue in choosing a candidate. But it was for at least a few.

Rachel Kirkland, a library assistant at the university, said she voted for Sen. Edwards in the Virginia primary that day, “mostly to be contrary,” but said she would enthusiastically support Mr. Kerry should he win the nomination.

“I went to his Web site, read up,” she said. “Being the mother of two small children, I was excited by a lot of what he had to say.”

She added: “After-school programs, pre-K, he wants to put more money into bringing kids up to speed. That means a lot to me.”

In addition to teachers’ unions, Mr. Kerry has another ally who has spent considerable time in the classroom: his sister Diana Kerry. She taught overseas for many years at international schools, and last school year at a public middle school in Boston before she was laid off because of budget cuts. Now, she’s volunteering on the campaign trail.

Speaking by phone last week from Wisconsin, which was to hold its primary Feb. 17, she said she’s bent her brother’s ear on education many times, especially about her Boston experience.

“He was very eager to hear what was going on,” said Ms. Kerry, who said she told him about problems such as the challenges of large class sizes and limited resources in some schools.

“He came and visited my school last year, and looked teachers in the eye and said, ‘You do the most important work in the world,’ and he meant it,” Ms. Kerry said. “It wasn’t just words. It isn’t just words with John.”


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