Thursday, August 27, 2009

Senator Kennedy Remembered

Photo from Wikipedia

I meet Ted Kennedy on election day in 2006. It was late in the evening and he was catching a flight back to Boston and I was on the same flight on my way to Los Angeles. I was struck by his appearance. Clearly exhausted and 74 years old he sat in the general boarding area of the airport. He boarded the plane and he and his wife Vicki sat in the regular seats right in front of me. Given his stature and fame I would think that most people would have flown first class. He did not.

On that day he had won his ninth term as a U.S. Senator by a landslide. In the end it would be his last.

He was a stanch supporter of public education as every public school educator recognizes. I would like to focus on just a couple pieces of education legislation that touched me personally.

Head Start

I presently serve on the Advisory Board of the Head Start Body Start Program with the National Head Start Program. Ted Kennedy has been a voice for Head Start and early childhood legislation since 1964. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was the centerpiece of the War on Poverty and included the Head Start Program. Head Start serves low-income three- and four-year-old children to prepare them for school. Educational research cites the benefits of early childhood education as one of the best investments leading to later school success. Twenty-five million children and families have participated in Head Start programs over the past 45 years, including Congresswomen Loretta Sanchez, Maxine Waters, Congressman Heath Schuler and athletes Shaquille O' Neal and Deion Sanders. Head Start now serves nearly a million children nationally.

Higher Education

On the other bookend of education, Senator Ted Kennedy was undoubtedly one of higher education's best friends. Kennedy was a driving force throughout his years in the Senate to see that every student who desires to enroll in college can afford to do so. Since the original Higher Education Act of 1965, Senator Kennedy worked to open the doors of opportunity for all Americans. Working with Senator Claiborne Pell during the 1972 re-authorization, Senator Kennedy supported the creation of the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant. This program, drastically increased the availability of grant aid to students. I participated in this grant program while I was in undergraduate school.

In December 2008 the president of Harvard said, “No United States senator has committed more of his time and his wisdom to the advancement of American higher education. Thanks to him, students across the spectrum have the opportunity to pursue their ambitions.”

Title IX

Title IX was my first experience with legislation. I learned that politics touches lives and shapes futures.

Senator Kennedy was a key supporter of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It protected women from discrimination in educational institutions and increased athletic opportunities for women in colleges and universities. President Richard Nixon signed this bill into law on June 23, 1972. Although I graduated from high school in 1972 the effects of the bill were setting in during my senior year. I played on school sports teams all through high school. Yet, although I played on the varsity team from 10-12th grades, it was not until my senior year that I played a single game in the gym. To a young athlete that is significant. Up until that time, as a female athlete, we were second class citizens in high school athletics. Although my high school had two gyms not a single girls varsity competition was held in them until Title IX legislation was introduced. I remember within a single year span I experienced all the talk about what could happen if the legislation passed, to what would happen if Title IX passed and then finally what did happen. At 17 years-old, legislation seemed like a fast track to change.

Later in my career I would learn that Title IX would also mean that I would have the opportunity to be a principal. I was in the early group of female principals hired throughout the state. Later Title IX regulations would result in my getting a pay raise bringing my principal salary in line with my male counterparts. The effects of Title IX (although over 3 decades old) continue to play out today.

Educators across the nation mourn the loss of a great friend and champion for the cause of public education.