Colleagues Reflect on Kennedy’s Education Legacy at Askwith ForumBy Jill Anderson
Although much of country is familiar with the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy’s efforts in healthcare reform, he was also a leading force behind such education policies as Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and the Direct Loan Program. The senator’s achievements in education were the focus of last Tuesday’s Askwith Forum, “Edward Kennedy: The Education Senator.”
“If you look at his record over the past 15 years, he had an enormous impact on the education framework in this country,” said Academic Dean Robert Schwartz, who moderated the discussion that included panelists Clayton Spencer, vice president for policy at Harvard University; Nick Littlefield, partner at Foley Hoag LLP; Ellen Guiney, executive director of Boston Plan for Excellence; and Donica Petroshius, CEO of Policy Strategies & Solutions, LL – all former members of Kennedy’s staff.
“When I think about Kennedy…I want to say that his commitment to education was equal to healthcare,” Littlefield said. Kennedy remained passionate about early childhood education and school reform during the ever-changing political landscape of the past 15 years. Littlefield recalled that when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proposed eliminating the Department of Education Kennedy and his staff fought hard and ultimately prevailed.
One of the many bills that Kennedy would push through the Senate, Goals 2000 — the predecessor to NCLB which established academic standards — was pivotal in creating a larger role of the federal government in education.
“It was a difficult bill to get passed,” Guiney said. “Most of the Republicans did not think the feds should be toying around with standards for kids…the Senator never gave up on it.”
Guiney recalls that once they had the necessary 60 votes to get Goals 2000 passed, Republicans called for the very large bill to be read in its entirety, potentially pushing discussion into the Passover holiday, which could have resulted in the defeat of the bill. In the end, the bill passed, due in no small part to Kennedy. “It was extraordinary what Kennedy and his staff orchestrated to get everyone on board,” Guiney said. “Goals 2000 laid the groundwork for standards and [No Child Left Behind].”
The panelists agree that Kennedy saw education as an “engine of opportunity.” His efforts stretched beyond policies solely geared toward K-12 into higher education. Spencer shared stories about the first time she wrote a memo about direct lending for college students. Kennedy’s first question after commending her work was, “How many votes do you have?”
Dean Kathleen McCartney asked the panelists how much the Senator relied on research to inform his policy decisions. “I think more than most [senators] he wanted to know what the research said on topics,” responded Schwartz, recounting a time when Kennedy met with him, Professor Bridget Terry Long, and Professor Tom Kane to discuss NCLB, teacher provisions, and simplifying the FAFSA process.
The senator was also well-known for inviting policy experts to dinner on a regular basis. However, the panelists contended that sometimes it’s difficult for research to stand during a political debate. “It’s a complex game,” Littlefield said. “We were lucky that Kennedy really cared about talking to researchers and getting ideas.”
In closing, Littlefield encouraged students to work hard to get their research in front of politicians and policymakers. Though Littlefield noted that it is often difficult, he said that it is “doable.” He encouraged students to take short periods of time and try to work as interns or fellows in Washington as a means of getting to know key people in the policy world. “There are no limits to what you can achieve once you get access to these people,” he said.