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How Kennedy Took Politics Out of Education

It is startling to realize, as we consider the legacy of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, that this very liberal, very partisan Democrat was key to the consensus that has unified the two parties on education policy for the last two decades.

I was slow to pick up on this. It wasn't until I looked carefully at the presidential candidate positions in 2000 that I understood how much the two parties agreed on how to make public schools better. George W. Bush and Al Gore were very different people, but their education platforms, once you got past their favorite wedge issue, vouchers, were nearly identical. Both wanted to use test scores to make schools accountable for improving achievement. If Gore had gotten to the White House, he would have produced a law similar to No Child Left Behind.

For some time I have attributed this to the good sense of education experts on both sides of the aisle. The people guiding the candidates on this issue have seen what works in schools, particularly in low income neighborhoods, and have rescued their parties from the kind of anti-testing rhetoric that was so popular with teacher union leaders.

But now I think much of this meeting of the minds was due to Kennedy, and his remarkable ability to forge legislative alliances on an issue he cared about. As former Reagan education official Chester E. Finn Jr. noted Wednesday, Kennedy made sure in 1988 that the independent federal testing under the National Assessment of Educational Progress was not destroyed by a lot of party squabbling. At the beginning of the Bush administration, Kennedy found a way to win a majority for the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind. It was Kennedy's bill too, something so disturbing to Kennedy's many admirers in the National Education Association that they just did not talk about it in public.

The Obama administration will, eventually, alter NCLB, its name and its details. It will be harder to do that in an intelligent way without Kennedy in the Senate. But if you listen to the president and his education secretary, they sound in many ways like Finn and other pundits on the Republican side. Kennedy had something to do with that too

By Jay Mathews  | August 26, 2009; 3:52 PM ET
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