The Lion’s Legacy

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When it comes to legislating on behalf of Americans most in need of federal assistance, few congressmen have a legacy with the breadth of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died last night after a year-long battle with brain cancer.

While champions of causes including health care, civil rights and Irish-American relations are mourning the loss of their major ally in the Senate, no industries benefitted more from Kennedy's efforts than youth work and education, whose leaders reflected on his impact.

"When you look for champions at the highest levels for children living on the margins, you have to put Senator Kennedy in that small cadre," said Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

"Senator Kennedy was probably the strongest voice for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the disabled, maybe in the history of the Senate," said Edward P. Kelley, president and CEO of the RFK Children's Action Corps, a Boston-based agency that serves children and youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

"Our children in this country today lost a great advocate, and he was tireless on these issues."

When Democrats were in power, Kennedy often used his high rank in key youth-relevant committees to push through legislation. It was his success making things happen when Republicans held sway that set him apart.

"He did a whole lot of listening," said Shirley Sagawa, who worked with Kennedy on the National and Community Service Act of 1990, legislation that dedicated federal funds to state and local service projects and created the Points of Light Foundation. "He really reached out to [Sen. Orrin] Hatch [R-Utah] to get that done, and he ultimately got the Bush White House on board." He and Hatch subsequently joined forces on other historic legislation.

But Kennedy didn't just pressure GOP leaders. "He was the senior senator from Massachusetts, a committee chair, and he'd go over to the House to the office of a freshman Republican and convince them" to get on board with a bill, Sagawa said. "That's unheard of; he'd do stuff like that."


Consider the following legislative achievements in which Kennedy had a major role:

National Service Legislation

There have been three major laws passed related to national service: the National and Community Service Act of 1990, the 1993 bill that created what is now the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, passed earlier this year, that paves the way for massive expansion of the AmeriCorps program.

Kennedy co-sponsored the 1990 act and authored the 1993 legislation.

"He was the lynchpin of every bill," said Sagawa.

Health and Education

Kennedy has been a lead sponsor on every bill augmenting educational services to disabled Americans since 1975, when it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Kennedy led major bipartisan reauthorizations of the law in 1997 and 2004.

Also in 1997, Kennedy and Hatch pushed through legislation that created the Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), one of the most successful federally-funded youth programs in history, which by 2006 was covering some 6.6 million children.

In the field of post-secondary education, higher education officials say Kennedy helped make college a reality for millions of Americans, particularly those from poor, working and middle-class families.

"His entire career was devoted to ensuring that every American who had the interest and desire to move on to post-secondary education would have the opportunity to do so," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "There is not a single piece of higher education-related legislation over the course of the past 40 years that he wasn't a significant participant in or the author of."

Asked for the most significant example, Nassirian pointed to the creation of the student aid system itself.

"I think it's fair to say what most people think of as the student loan system today has its roots in the Original Higher Education Act of 1965, " Nassirian said, noting that Kennedy was a major player in every reauthorization of that legislation.

Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, expressed similar regard.

"He understood far better and more clearly than many others that the benefits of higher education are broad, that both the individual and society benefit enormously from investment in higher education," Merisotis said in a prepared statement sent to Youth Today. "He could see that those outcomes are important for our economic well being, our social cohesion and our democracy."

Juvenile Justice

Kelley, of RFK Children's Action Corps, recalled how Kennedy, an original supporter of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, worked to make sure the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention - which was created by the act - got the funding it needed to exist.

During the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, funding for OJJDP was often zeroed out in the budgets the administration submitted to Congress.

"He (Kennedy) would be certain that money would get into that funding base to make sure there was a national perspective on juvenile justice," Kelley said.

"He always stood up for the principles of the JJDPA [The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act]," said Bilchik, who served as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention for President Bill Clinton. "Beyond that, he really focused on issues around mental health" in juvenile justice, an issue that the rest of the country is only now catching up with Kennedy on. 


There are more accomplishments on Kennedy's final tally: lowering the voting age to 18 , the ill-fated School-to-Work Opportunities Act and funding for the successful Amber Alert notification system, to name just a few. Perhaps Kennedy's only true misfires when it came to youth legislation were the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and the Younger Americans Act (YAA).

The former was hailed as a bipartisan compromise, forged by Kennedy and President George W. Bush, that would bring about public school accountability by allowing parents to move children out of failing schools. But Kennedy soon became disenchanted with the law, which has heavily burdened states and introduced America to the phrase "teaching to the test." Kennedy criticized the law he helped pass in a 2008 opinion piece in The Washington Post.

The Younger Americans Act was dream legislation for youth work advocates in the early 2000s, a billion-dollar bill that would have funded positive youth development programs for poor children. Authored by Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), YAA's best chance to move came when the Democrats took control of the Senate in 2001, and Kennedy became chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP). Kennedy was one of YAA's five co-sponsors.

The act never moved, and there was never so much as a hearing held on YAA that year. In an August 2002 column, Youth Today Publisher Bill Treanor took Kennedy to task: "When Democrats regained control of the Senate last year, they placed Sens. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) in positions to act. Pleading the press of other business, these two have done zilch."


Kennedy's youth legacy, however, isn't limited to legislation; it's a living legacy that includes a long list of former staffers who have gone on to careers in the youth field. President Barack Obama's administration is probably the best testament to the power of Kennedy office alumni in youth work. Melody Barnes, Kennedy's former chief counsel, heads Obama's domestic policy council. Carmel Martin, Arne Duncan's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development at the Department of Education, is a former chief education adviser to Kennedy. And Jane Oates, who now leads the Employment and Training Administration at the Department of Labor, was formerly senior adviser to Kennedy for higher education, workforce development, national service, vocational education and educational research.

While his Capitol Hill protégés influence youth policy, those training youth workers on the front lines credit Kennedy with a major victory in 2007. Kennedy was the point person for including nonprofit employees in the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which wipes out the debt of certain "public service" employees - including nonprofit employees - after 10 years of service if they've been making their payments.

Originally, nonprofit employees were not included in the legislation until Sen. Kennedy included them, said Phyllis Wallace, executive director of the Management/Leadership Institute at American Humanics.

"We had to fight to get nonprofits incorporated," Wallace said. "We went to him, and he sponsored the bill. He also did what he does so well, which is get it passed."


Now the question is: Who in Congress can take the youth work mantle in Kennedy's stead?  Merisotis and Nassirian said Kennedy's death leaves a "vacuum" in terms of leadership on higher education.

"He was such a strong believer in working on behalf of the poor," said Wallace. "What voice do we have now that's going to be consistent, that no matter what the needs are, they're always going to take into consideration children and people living in impoverished areas? I'm just really concerned about that. Our leader in the Senate is gone."


  • Kathleen M. Anderson

    We need more people helping young adults with student loan debt. Sen. Ted Kennedy was such a supporter of these kind of issures. I only hope others will pick up on these issues.