01/06/2009

AFT Remembers Education, Labor Advocate Pell

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Former Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, an honorary AFT member and one of the union's strongest allies in the U.S. Senate on education and labor issues, died on Jan. 1. Pell, who served six terms in the Senate after first winning election in 1960, said his proudest achievement in a distinguished legislative career was creating the college student loan program that now bears his name.

The legislation creating Pell Grants, originally known as Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, passed in 1963. Since then, the grants have helped tens of millions of poor and middle-class students attend college. The name was officially changed to honor Pell in 1980. As Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who served for many years in the Senate alongside Pell, put it, "The doors of college have been opened to millions of Americans-and will continue to be opened to millions more. That is a legacy that will live on for generations to come."

Throughout Pell's career, former AFT president Edward J. McElroy notes, he was a vigorous supporter of public education and an equally vigorous opponent of vouchers.

Pell also wrote the 1965 legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. An avid support of mass transportation, he pushed through legislation that led to the creation of Amtrak. During his final years in the Senate, Pell's focus turned toward international affairs as chair and then ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Despite coming from one of the most prominent old-money families in Rhode Island, Pell remained a staunch supporter of unions and their members during his career. McElroy-a longtime Rhode Island union leader-remembers Pell "as a tried and true advocate for working people, and the people in Rhode Island loved him for it. He was one of a kind and has been missed in the Senate, and he will be missed by all of those who loved and respected him."

He was "American royalty," former President Bill Clinton said at Pell's memorial service. "He was the right kind of aristocrat-a champion by choice, not circumstance, of the common good, our common future and our common dreams."