Sen. Isakson’s Commitment to Education Has Impacted Generations of Students
Thursday, December 19th, 2019
In his 45-year public service career, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has served as chairman of the Georgia Board of Education and on the education committees in the Georgia general assembly and in Congress. He’s helped write some of the most significant federal education policies in recent history and has always focused on bettering the lives of future generations through quality education.
In the latest video in a series focusing on Isakson’s career as he prepares to leave the Senate on Dec. 31, Isakson’s colleagues recount his years of service to Georgia’s and the country’s young people through his efforts to improve education policy.
“He’s going to have a legacy obviously in the field of education, where he has been a tremendous leader,”said former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
In 1996, then-Gov. Zell Miller, who had recently defeated Isakson for governor, appointed him to lead the Georgia Board of Education as chairman. Isakson successfully led the board through numerous challenges until his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999.
“He has a way of getting along with people,” said Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “For example, the Democratic governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, appointed Johnny to head the state board of education, even though Johnny was a Republican. So he has the capacity to cause other people to like him and to trust him, and as a result, he gets things done.”
“He gets a call from his former opponent and bitter political rival, Governor Zell Miller, who says to him, ‘Johnny, I’d like you to come and help rescue the state board of education from a moment of crisis,’” recalled former Isakson chief of staff Heath Garrett. “He turned somebody who had been a political enemy into a political ally, and it was a political new friend who reached across the aisle and gave Johnny Isakson an opportunity to serve the public once again.”
“Georgia turned around. Scores got better, schools got better, people got better,” said Isakson about his time as state board of education chairman. “That appointment changed my whole political career. Just because somebody is your opponent today doesn’t mean they can’t be your biggest friend tomorrow. That was my most fun I’ve ever had in public life was the education experience in Georgia and how it came about.”
Once in Congress, Isakson brought his experience to the U.S. House education committee, where he took part in writing the No Child Left Behind Act – comprehensive education reform enacted in 2002 to strengthen America’s public schools.
“Johnny was one of the few Republicans who had ever served as a chairman of a state school board and understood public education policy at the level that Johnny Isakson did,” said Garrett. “No Republican in the Congress knew more about public education than Johnny Isakson.”
In the Senate, Isakson became a member of the Senate education committee, and more a decade after No Child Left Behind was enacted, Isakson played a key role in the rewrite of the law to bring about much-needed updates to the country’s education policies.
“Senator Patty Murray and I work on a lot of things together. For example, education and fixing No Child Left Behind,” said Alexander. “We got stuck actually on an early childhood education issue that she wanted and that I couldn’t support. So I just stepped back and asked Johnny to work with Patty to see if they could work it out – and they did, because of their respect and trust for each other.”
“I try to be a catalyst for people, to go out and say, ‘rather than tell me what you think is wrong with education, tell me what you think is right with it. Tell me what you think we should do, and if that is what you think we should do, how can we help you do it,’” said Isakson.
“I was delighted because Johnny is just the kind of person who focuses on something,” said Murray, D-Wash.“I knew his passion about early childhood education, and he agreed immediately to work with me. We were able to work together for the first time ever, as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a focus on early childhood education.”
“I think it’s fair to say that we could not have fixed No Child Left Behind without Johnny Isakson’s experience and leadership,” said Alexander in a 2015 Senate floor speech. “I’m deeply grateful to him for that.
“Seeing this bill through is a great testimony to working together, to finding common ground, and to our collective purpose of seeing to it our children are the best educated children in the world,” Isakson said in a2015 speech after the bill passed the Senate.
Isakson has been honored numerous times for his efforts to improve education. He earned the “Legislator of the Year Award” in 2006 from the National Association of State Boards of Education for his many years of work on behalf of education.
Frequently in his “Six Silent Secrets” commencement address, Isakson tells new high school and college graduates to “never stop learning.” Throughout his 45-year public service career, Isakson has worked tirelessly to ensure students from early to post-secondary education have always had the opportunity to learn in a quality education system.