Capitol cause celeb: Jennifer Garner and the fight for education

When actress Jennifer Garner visits Capitol Hill, she lobbies on behalf of an issue that doesn’t have the pizazz of global warming or the chicness of Tibetan independence. For Garner, childhood education is what matters.

Raised in West Virginia, the 37-year-old star of the hit TV series “Alias” — who also has movies including “13 Going on 30,” “Juno” and “The Kingdom” to her credit — has always had a soft spot for the issue.

“When I really asked myself what meant the most to me, that I could speak about the most honestly, [it] was helping kids like the kids I grew up with in West Virginia,” Garner told POLITICO.

On her own accord, she contacted Save the Children, a nonprofit that supports childhood education efforts in the United States and 30 countries around the world.

“They did not ask me. I asked them!” says Garner. “I wanted to be educated on rural poverty in America.”

Garner — who is married (to Ben Affleck ) with two kids — became Save the Children’s artist ambassador. In May, she made her first appearance on Capitol Hill, arriving with her mother, Pat, a former schoolteacher. The goal was to discuss a report showing that two-thirds of American fourth graders are reading below grade level. She also made time to advocate for $2 billion of additional funding for Head Start programs. By September, she was back in Washington, this time alongside House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to introduce the Full Service Community Schools Act of 2009.

That legislation would provide $1 billion over five years to support the development of so-called full-service community schools. In addition to traditional classes, these schools address nonacademic issues that often affect classroom performance. They offer students and their families services like dental care, early childhood education and nutrition classes. Hoyer’s staff is hoping to include the bill — which has 62 co-sponsors — in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year.

Hoyer has been impressed by Garner’s efforts. “She is engaged and knowledgeable on the issues,” he said. “It’s clear that she knows from her own experience the importance of access to good education — especially for low-income children.”

So far, her reach on Capitol Hill has been broad. She has lunched with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.), Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), Marion Berry (D-Ark.), Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Todd Platts (R-Pa.).

She has had private meetings with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Mark Shriver, Save the Children’s managing director of U.S. programs, says his artist ambassador understands the political process as well as the issues. “She’s active on our staff calls, and she’s been active in writing letters and making phone calls to elected officials,” Shriver says. “It’s not like she drops in, gets some attention and leaves.”

The star’s participation also boosts the advocacy groups rallying support for the bill. Garner helps to get “staffers and members to come to a briefing that they wouldn’t otherwise come to,” says Jodi Grant of the Afterschool Alliance, an organization in favor of the legislation. “The value of having someone like Jennifer Garner is getting people in the room — and then they’ll decide what to do.”

Shriver agrees. “Just her presence helps secure meetings,” he says. “When Jennifer comes to D.C. and brings visibility … it’s a big difference, big impact. You have to keep the momentum going if you want to affect policy change. She keeps the ball moving.”

Garner has been impressed by the workings of Washington so far. “I have found senators and congressmen to be really engaged and very passionate about kids in America and full of ideas. They’re trying to be open to hearing what we have to say,” she says.

So, how’s the lobbying going? “I don’t know … but it makes sense to me. People seem receptive,” Garner says. “But it’s hard to get from a smile and nod and handshake to seeing something actually go through.”

What could prevent the bill’s progress are budgetary constraints. In a time of rising concern over government spending and mounting deficits, lawmakers may try to trim provisions like the Full Service Community Schools Act from the broader legislation in order to rein in costs. “The big hurdle for everything is funding,” says Grant. “There’s not a lot of money out there.”

Republicans concerned about government spending and control have some objections to the bill. One House staffer told POLITICO: “These programs have been funded by Democrats for the last two years. Given that track record, we expect an ESEA reauthorization written by Democrats to include this program despite some very real objections about the fact that it would significantly expand federal control over health and social services in schools.”

Shriver remains optimistic that Garner’s efforts can help move the bill across the goal line. “Will she alone be able to do it? No,” he says. “But she adds a strong, committed voice — you need a lot of voices in the political process in order to affect change, and she’s keeping that going.”

For her part, Garner isn’t about to give up. “I’m sure that I’ll be on Capitol Hill in 2010,” she says. “If I can stay in front of these bills and issues and remind [lawmakers] and bug them about it, I’m more than happy to put on a proper dress and a set of pearls to do so.”

Source: Politico.com