College & Workforce Readiness

Harkin, Now Retired, Left Imprint on Federal Ed. Policy

By Lauren Camera — January 05, 2015 8 min read
Then-Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, listens during an executive session of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last September, in his final term in Congress before retiring.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who served for nearly four decades in Congress between both chambers, kept two items hanging on his office wall that he looked at each time he left to cast a vote, attend a committee hearing, or work on a bill.

One was a framed drawing of the house in Slovenia that his mother, Frances Valentine, was born in and where she lived until the age of 25. The house had a dirt floor and no running water.

The other was his father’s Works Progress Administration card from 1939, which asked him to report to work as soon as possible, for $40.30 a month. His father, Patrick Francis Harkin, who had worked in the coal mines of southern Iowa, was unemployed at the time, and his mother was pregnant with Mr. Harkin, the youngest of six children, who was born four months, to the day, after his father received that WPA card.

“There were no jobs, and life looked pretty bleak,” explained Sen. Harkin during his farewell address Dec. 12 on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “Things looked hopeless, and then my father, who only had a 6th grade education, got that letter from Franklin Roosevelt and got a job. It was important for a lot of reasons, not only for money and the dignity of work, but it gave my father hope.”

The story is the backdrop to Sen. Harkin’s entire legislating philosophy, which was guided by the need to ensure a ladder of opportunity exists for those who want and need it.

The progressive Democrat, who championed education equality and the rights of people with disabilities, cast his last vote on the evening of Dec. 16, closing the curtain on both the 113th Congress and a storied career on Capitol Hill.

Headed East

Sen. Harkin grew up in Cumming, Iowa, population 350.

After working his way through the University of Iowa in Iowa City with help from a Navy ROTC scholarship, and after that five years spent as a Navy pilot, Mr. Harkin first came to Washington in 1969 as staff member for Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa, who was investigating the military’s progress in Vietnam.

Actress Marlee Matlin, center, who is deaf, signs to actress Emma Samms, left, and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin before a Senate subcommittee hearing in 1990. Sen. Harkin, just retired from Congress, was a dogged advocate for those with disabilities and had a deep impact on federal education policy.

During a tour of South Vietnam, Mr. Harkin discovered and photographed “tiger cages,” hidden prisons where prisoners of the United States’ South Vietnamese allies were abused and tortured. Over the objections of his superiors, he provided the photos to Life magazine, which simultaneously exposed gross violations of human rights on the part of South Vietnam and further energized the anti-war movement in the United States.

The decision cost Mr. Harkin his job, but he didn’t stay away for long. He earned his law degree from Catholic University in Washington and in 1974 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and a decade later to the Senate.

Advancing the rights of students and people with disabilities was one of Sen. Harkin’s signature issues. He was a leading author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted in 1990. The landmark law required buildings and public transportation to be wheelchair-accessible, and called for accommodations for people with disabilities in the workplace.

“This is really going to change American society in a very significant way,” Sen. Harkin said in 1989, just months before the bill was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

And he was right. Since the enactment of the law, and its subsequent expansion in 2008, 54 million people with disabilities in the United States have greater access to employment and educational opportunities.

His efforts on the issue have been inspired in part by his late brother, Frank Harkin, who was deaf. During the passage of the ADA, Sen. Harkin gave an entire speech on the floor of the Senate using only sign language.

As the chairman or ranking member, since 1990, of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education funding, Sen. Harkin sought to provide full federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which helps cover the cost of students in special education. The law authorizes Congress to contribute up to 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure, but it’s never been fully funded. In fiscal 2014, for example, federal funds covered 16 percent of the estimated excess cost of educating children with disabilities.

He also pushed generally for increased education aid. In 1990, during one of his first budget battles, he argued with then-U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos that because states and local school systems are financially squeezed and unable to raise the revenue they need to improve their programs, the federal government should play a greater role.

“I have looked in vain for years now [to find] where it is written in stone that education should be primarily funded from property taxes,” he said in a committee hearing. That year, he helped secure an additional $3 billion in federal aid for education.

Taking the Chair

Sen. Harkin became one of the most important players in education policy in 2009, when he took the helm of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion from Massachusetts. The position made Sen. Harkin the only senator in recent history to oversee both education legislation and the purse strings attached to it.

That year, Sen. Harkin also became a major player in the Affordable Care Act and was largely responsible for including the $12 billion preventive-care fund in the law.


In nearly four decades as a U.S. representative and senator, Democrat Tom Harkin championed legislation that expanded rights for people with disabilities, sought to close achievement gaps in education, and increased funding for federal education programs. Here’s a brief timeline of his political career.

1974: Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives

1984: Elected to the U.S. Senate

1990: Key architect of the Americanwith Disabilities Act, his signature legislative achievement

1992: Sought Democratic nomination for president

2001: Played a role in the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act

2008: Oversaw an expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act

2009: Became chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee after Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., died

2009: Integral in including a provision funding preventive care in the Affordable Care Act

2012: Ushered an overhaul of the NCLB law through the Senate education committee, although the bill died in the Senate

2014: Helped broker updates to the federal workforce law affecting workers with disabilities and to the Child Care Development Block Grant program. President Barack Obama signed both into law.

SOURCE: Education Week

When he became chairman, Sen. Harkin launched a sprawling investigation into the for-profit college industry, which unearthed unsavory marketing and recruiting practices by some institutions that often loaded students with unmanageable amounts of loan debt for relatively worthless degrees or certificates. Though Congress never passed legislation to more tightly regulate the for-profit sector, his committee’s investigation was the basis for the Obama administration’s recently released “gainful employment” regulations.

His colleagues on Capitol Hill, however, didn’t always share his policy agenda.

In the thick of his investigation into the for-profit college industry, for example, Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., then-ranking member of the education panel, called the effort a “witch hunt” that dismissed the value of the higher education sector for working parents, single parents, veterans, and other non-traditional degree-seekers.

During the recent adjustment of federal student loan interest rates in 2013, as Sen. Harkin’s proposal to lower rates became stymied by an acceptable way to pay for it, he was all but steamrolled by those in his own party. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, brokered with Republicans a scaled-back proposal that included higher interest rates than Sen. Harkin cared for.

Some in Congress—and some outside observers—took issue with what they saw as Sen. Harkin’s inability to move legislation, most notably an update to the No Child Left Behind Act. “Harkin can’t manage his way out of a paper bag,” said one education policymaker in an August 2013 report from the Washington-based policy-consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors, on prospects for updating the law.

Still, even as the 113th Congress was widely seen as the least productive in U.S. history, it was Mr. Harkin’s most productive as chairman of the HELP Committee.

In the past two years, Mr. Harkin helped steer 26 bills out of his committee that were signed into law by the president. Among them: an update to the Child Care Development Block Grant program, and an overhaul of the federal workforce law, which included new provisions aimed at career preparation for high school students with disabilities.

Leaving a Void

Sen. Harkin’s retirement in January—and that of Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who spent 40 years advocating education equality—leaves a void in Congress among lawmakers concerned with protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities and shoring up special education.

“He had a vision for the potential for independence that he knew people with disabilities could have, and should have, in our society,” said Laura Kaloi, a vice president of the lobbying firm Washington Partners, where she works on special education policy, among other education and civil-rights-focused issues. “He took that vision and found so many ways to touch federal policy so that opportunities could be opened and barriers could be broken down.”

Ms. Kaloi added: “He was a visionary. There is a void now. It’s there and it’s real.”

Among the hefty to-do list Sen. Harkin left for his colleagues was a plea to pass legislation that would allow people with disabilities to live more independently and be more economically self-sufficient.

“Almost two out of every three Americans with a disability who want to work and who can work cannot find a job,” he said. “That is a blot on our national character.”

He pushed his colleagues to look at new hiring practices of Walgreens, Best Buy, Loews, Home Depot, and Marriott, all major corporations that have increased their hiring of people with disabilities.

“I dwell on this because perhaps I feel I haven’t done enough on this issue of employment for people with disabilities, and we just have to do better,” he said in his farewell address. He added that his saddest moment in Congress was the failure of the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a United Nations convention that has been ratified by 150 other nations.

Two major pieces of legislation that Sen. Harkin was unable to push through in his last period of congressional leadership were a reauthorization of the NCLB law and an update to the Higher Education Act.

The legislative accomplishments he did make, however, bolstered the course he had aimed for many years earlier.

“You might say that my career in Congress is the story of a poor kid from Cumming, Iowa,” he said, “trying his best to pay it forward, saying thank you for the opportunities I was given, by leaving that ladder and ramp of opportunity stronger for those who follow.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Harkin’s Deep Imprint as Feisty Progressive Seen in Federal Policy


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Pool of College Applicants Looked Like After Affirmative Action Ban
Questions remain for future research on the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on race-based admissions.
4 min read
Students toss their caps into the air during the Morgantown High School graduation in Morgantown, W. Va., on May, 25, 2024.
Students toss their caps into the air during the Morgantown High School graduation in Morgantown, W. Va., on May 25. There is new data analysis of 6 million U.S.-based college applicants over five years to more than 800 institutions.
William Wotring/The Dominion-Post via AP
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says The State of Career and Technical Education, in Charts
New federal data shows more than 8 in 10 high school graduates completed at least one course in a career-education field in 2019.
2 min read
Young girl working on an electrical panel in a classroom setting.
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion Can Mastery-Based Learning Replace Seat Time?
Developing better assessments and getting buy-in from practitioners will be key to replacing seat time as a proxy for mastery.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center Are Real-World Problem-Solving Skills Essential for Students?
Ensuring students' career readiness is a top priority for districts.
2 min read
Photograph of culturally diverse students and Black female teacher discussing mathematics problem at a whiteboard