Wellstone Recalled As Friend of Public Education

November 06, 2002 4 min read
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Paul Wellstone is well remembered for his school visits.

He often said that he stopped in at a Minnesota school about once every two weeks. And when the Minnesota senator was there, he didn’t just speak. He listened.

"[He had this] ability to really engage kids of all ages, and to listen to them,” said Judy Schaubach, the president of Education Minnesota, the state’s combined affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “Sometimes you see [politicians] who are in schools, and it’s really a photo-op. But with Paul, he really listened to students.”

Sen. Wellstone died in a plane crash Oct. 25, less than two weeks before Minnesota voters were set to decide his political fate. The 58-year-old Democrat’s race against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican, had been considered a tossup, though Mr. Wellstone had a slight lead in polls. Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale replaced him on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The senator, said Carol R. Johnson, the superintendent of the 50,000- student Minneapolis public schools, “just had an unrelenting passion and commitment to serving public education.”

Often in Minority

During his two terms in the Senate, beginning in January 1991, Mr. Wellstone served on the Senate education committee, currently called the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He was a former political science professor, and two of his three children taught in public schools.

One, his daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, also died in the plane crash, along with his wife, Sheila, and five others.

Mr. Wellstone was one of the Senate’s most liberal members, and a political maverick.

He found himself on the losing end of a 98-1 vote against the Education Flexibility Partnership Act in 1999, arguing that the bill offered flexibility in following federal rules at the expense of accountability.

Late last year, he voted with just nine other senators against the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. He said Congress was not providing enough money to help students and schools meet the law’s ambitious new demands.

In addition, he was one of the few senators to criticize the law’s expanded testing requirements.

“I am amazed that so many of my colleagues are now supporting [this] federal mandate,” Sen. Wellstone said the day the final bill, championed by President Bush and such leading Democrats as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was passed. “Every school district, every school, every child, grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. I must say that I think this oversteps, if not the authority, the sort of boundaries of congressional decisionmaking on education.”

“Here I am, a liberal senator from Minnesota,” he said, “but this is my honest-to-God belief.”

Mr. Wellstone’s views on testing came in part from his own experience. He admitted to having been poor at taking standardized tests, and pointed to a learning disability.

“I’m convinced that I never would have received my doctorate if I had taken the results of standardized tests too seriously or listened to those who put so much credence in what they measured,” he wrote in an opinion piece for USA Today in 2000.

Even while he opposed the final version of the education law, a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, his fingerprints were on it. For example, the Senate agreed to a Wellstone amendment altering the testing provisions, including language intended to ensure that the assessments are of adequate technical quality and use multiple measures.

Mr. Wellstone also sponsored an amendment that restored the Parental Assistance Information Centers program, which provided $40 million in fiscal 2002 to encourage parent involvement in education.

One of the senator’s top priorities was increasing federal aid to education.

He fought last year for a plan to switch federal spending on special education from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the budget, locking in big increases for years to come.

“We had the chance to make our rhetoric of the last 26 years about the [special education] program a reality,” Sen. Wellstone said at the time. But the measure, approved in the Senate as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, was stripped out during a House-Senate conference committee.

“That is what I am saddest about,” he said.

‘A Man of Passion’

Charles E. Kyte, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and a longtime friend of the Wellstones, was struck by the senator’s commitment to disadvantaged families.

“He was a strong spokesperson for public education, especially [helping] the immigrant kids and the kids who come from poverty,” he said. “I mean, that’s the kids his heart went out to.”

“This was a man of passion and ... sometimes almost fiery temperament,” Mr. Kyte added.

That passion was on display at a Washington press conference in May. When his turn came to speak, Mr. Wellstone began calmly enough. But the volume climbed as he got more animated, and he fell into a pep rally cadence.

“If you want to reduce poverty in our country, focus on a good education,” the senator said. “If you want to have a stable middle class, focus on a good education. ... If you want women and men who can think on their own two feet and participate in a democracy, focus on a good education. ...

“We’re gonna keep on fightin’, and keep on fightin’, and keep on fightin’ for education!”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Wellstone Recalled As Friend of Public Education


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