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Senator Kennedy’s Passing: Where Do We Go From Here?

I was deeply saddened by Senator Kennedy’s death last week. He championed many of the causes I believe in. I had the privilege of working with him on many of those issues particularly in education, worker’s rights and children’s health care. I disagreed with his support for No Child Left behind in 2001 and he was willing to listen to the criticism. As Andrea Mitchell pointed out last week, his views toward the law (NCLB) had changed over the years as he came to see that it was a largely unfunded mandate. As critical as the funding issue is, however, it misses the mark. He never really was able to accede that the law’s greatest flaw was not so much underfunding as its over-reliance on standardized test scores and all the unintended consequences that have accrued from a one size fits all focus.

Politics, it is said, is the art of compromise, and Ted Kennedy, in spite of his flaws, over his 47 years in the U.S. Senate mastered the skills necessary to reach consensus. As we heard over and over again last week, he took an incremental approach as long as it moved closer to his goal. I saw that up front and personal when we worked on legislation in Massachusetts to provide health insurance for over 180,000 uninsured children and young adults. After our success in Massachusetts, Senator Kennedy carried the fight to Washington and with his good friend Orin Hatch (R-UT) passed legislation which has provided insurance for millions of American children now known as CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) which evolved into SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance) administered by Medicare and Medicaid.

Last week was about looking back, but we do not have the luxury of dwelling on the past with all that is on the table for health care and education. For example, Senator Kennedy chaired the HELP Committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) – who will take his place? Senator Dodd is the most senior member and has already taken over the management of the health insurance reform effort. He currently chairs the Banking Committee, which he would give up should he assume the chair of HELP. Clearly Chris Dodd has been a good friend of education and fully understands what most troubles educators about NCLB. Next in line would be Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), but he would have to give up his chair of the Agriculture Committee. Next in line is Senator Barbara Mlkulski (D-MD) The Senate returns from recess on September 8. My gut tells me that Senator Dodd will lean toward accepting the chair of HELP and that would be good for educators and education as we approach the inevitable, yet illusive, re-authorization of ESEA.

Here in Massachusetts the burning question is whether the legislature will act upon the request from both Senator Kennedy, shortly before his passing, and now Governor Patrick to restore the governor’s power to appoint an interim Senator until the special election in early January. This is important for the health care issue because it restores the 60 vote majority for Democrats in the Senate.

Beyond the politics, there are likely still many in the education community who would say “Is this really our fight?” In the 90’s, I was convinced it is our fight, and I am even more convinced today. Just on the basis of enlightened self-interest we know that the dramatic and relentless cost increases in health care premiums continue to erode our standard of living. And in this age of increasing accountability for the success or failure of our students, how can we hope to increase the intellectual achievement of students who are deprived of the ability to maintain their physical and emotional well-being? The latest figures I could find indicate that over 11% or 8.6 million children in the United States were without health insurance in 2007. In Connecticut between 2005-2007, 58,000 or 6.7% of all children were uninsured according to a report published by Families USA Foundation in 2008. Let’s hope that the detente brought about by Ted Kennedy’s passing will help in bringing the health care debate back into one of focus and civility and at the very least make significant progress for America’s children.

We can and should play a role in making that happen.

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