By now there is not a lot to be said about Senator Kennedy that hasn’t been said. But his truly was a great story, even more so considering the long shadows hanging over him. What impressed me most was his work ethic. A lot of pols work hard, but he was a force of nature. When you first encounter him, or at least when I first did, it was the whole Kennedy mystique that captivated. In my case that this was Bobby Kennedy’s brother (but I’m sure for many people that it was Jack Kennedy’s brother). In any event, after watching him in action it’s the incredible work ethic, tenacity, and force of personality that leaves the more powerful and lasting impression. We surely won’t see another like him in our lifetimes and we’re the poorer for it.
That’s because Geoff Garin nails it in this Wash Post op-ed as does Bruce Reed in this Slate piece. Kennedy was a partisan without peer but at the same time he was a legislator without peer as well. We’ve got plenty of partisans but a real shortage – at all levels of government – of people who can work together to find and cultivate common ground and solve shared problems. It’s why government increasingly has trouble solving the easier problems we face; leave aside the really complicated ones. This is no doubt a problem within both parties but as Republicans assume an increasingly obstructionist posture in Washington it’s particularly conspicuous among their ranks –who are the great Republican compromisers in the U.S. Senate?
Finally, there is inevitably some speculation about Kennedy and the No Child Left Behind law. For a long time the narrative was that he was snookered into it by President Bush. That was nonsense and is now generally recognized as such. So the narrative has evolved into ‘he might not have done it if he’d known what was going to happen on the funding.’ Yet that narrative fails to get at the nuance here, too.
Kennedy was the fulcrum on No Child in the Senate, bringing together the various factions on education policy to pass the law. In the years following No Child’s enactment Kennedy had some quibbles with the policy implementation around issues like how civil rights laws should affect private tutoring providers and other issues that while not unimportant were derivative from the primary policy. And coming into the law’s reauthorization he had changes that he wanted to see – for instance more support to turn around low-performing schools.
But he never went after the main thrust of the policy or its main tools. Instead, he cleverly made funding the key area of disagreement thereby shifting some of the focus away from the policy. Funding is a perennial debate in education (and don’t believe the rhetoric, the dollars that have gone into education over the past decade are staggering) and consequently a fairly harmless venue for political fights. In other words, by doing this Kennedy likely contributed to the policy’s survival and increasing durability. Had he wanted to undo the law or reverse course he likely could have succeeded. He didn’t. In fact he rebuffed specific efforts – by Democrats as well as Republicans – in the Senate to do just that including in votes on the floor. So we don’t have to speculate about whether he’d do it all differently, his votes tell the tale.
Oddly, in the end, the No Child law ends up being very much like what Bobby Kennedy had in mind when the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965. So, as we pray for him let’s also pray that it doesn’t take 40 years and another figure of Kennedy’s stature to bring about the next substantial consensus and advance in national education policy.