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Parents' Lobby Poised to Fight The Education 'Establishment'

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Eileen White

Washington--The federal "education lobby"--a collection of representatives of the more than 100 professional education associations, unions, and parent organizations that annually seek funds from the Congress--may face new opposition on Capitol Hill next year, if the members of a newly formed lobbying group succeed in their efforts to promote "a new voice in education policy making."

The group, known as "Learn Inc.: The Education Foundation," recently began a drive to seek 100,000 members and contributions from well-heeled conservatives to support a goal of "offering alternative policy initiatives that wouldn't be recommended by the education establishment," according to the organization's executive director, Robert E. Baldwin.

"[Because] the education establishment has virtually gotten everything they've wanted from the Congress, the Reagan block grants and budget cuts have gone down the tubes," Mr. Baldwin said. "There's no counterbalancing force."

Learn Inc.--which currently has "only about six members"--hopes to be the Washington voice for the point of view "held by many parents" that a radical change in the American education system is necessary, he said.

Specifically, the organization will promote initiatives such as federal vouchers for parents of disadvantaged children to replace the Education Department's Title I program; tuition tax credits to provide parents with "more choice about where to educate their children"; and the reduction of the federal role in education, replacing current programs and the Cabinet-level department with a small agency to gather education statistics from around the country.

Such proposals enjoy wide support among parents, Mr. Baldwin claimed, but because no one organization represents the point of view of politically conservative parents, their ideas are not being aired in the Congress.

"You never hear the education community talking about [radical alternatives]," Mr. Baldwin said. "But there's so much frustration out there. I think there needs to be someone to lead parents to a different outlook as to the way education should be funded and run.

"We can be a clearinghouse, an umbrella organization for local parents' groups, to let them know what the federal government is doing with regard to education and to allow parents to choose," he added. "We don't want to foist a conservative ideology on the public schools; we simply want to allow parents to choose."

Reforms in Education

The founding of Learn Inc. in January actually resulted from the reorganization of a New York-based group called the National Association of Concerned Parents and Educators, Mr. Baldwin said. That organization, which was established in 1979 by parents and teachers as a national clearinghouse to promote reforms in education, "never got off the ground" because many of its founders were distracted by their work in the 1980 Reagan Presidential campaign, he said.

Among the founders of the association was Daniel Oliver, a former New York attorney who is now general counsel to the Education Department. Mr. Oliver said through a spokesman that he would not comment about the association.

With their activities broadened to include Congressional advocacy, the leaders of the new organization moved their base here and sought the services of Mr. Baldwin, a well-known lobbyist who formerly represented Citizens for Educational Freedom, an organization that supports tuition tax credits.

Learn Inc. also has attracted to its advisory board many prominent conservative scholars and activists who Mr. Baldwin said he hoped would help to give the organization "a broad philosophical perspective."

The 20-member board includes the "neo-conservative" scholars Nathan Glazer of Harvard University and Chester E. Finn Jr. of Vanderbilt University because "we have to avoid being too aggressively labeled 'New Right'," Mr. Baldwin said.

The organization might receive that "label," he said, because of its politically conservative themes and because its board also includes parents-rights activists such as Onalee McGraw of the Heritage Foundation and Connaught C. Marshner of the Free Congress Foundation. Both of those organizations, headquartered here, espouse conservative educational philosophies.

One of the members of the advisory board, Donald A. Erickson, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and the director of the Institute for the Study of Private Schools, said he accepted the appointment "because I know several of the people behind the organization and have confidence in what they are doing."

"I happen to believe that we need a fundamental rethinking about how we structure American education," he said.

"I agree with Learn's notions of getting more parental involvement and getting parents to influence the schools. Schools have been largely taken over by the professionals and have been run more to the comfort of the schools than of the students," he added.

Denis P. Doyle, a resident fellow in education at the American Enterprise Institute who also sits on the Learn Inc. advisory board, said he hoped the new organization would "provide an opportunity to act as a forum for a number of people who have otherwise not been involved in the education policy debate."

A former Carter Administration education official, Mr. Doyle said he found in the federal education agency "a climate that was unfavorably disposed toward certain topics--private education, rural education, issues of school size, local control and diversity, and autonomy. Learn can encourage a wide variety of opinions instead of the stale ideas of the 70's."

Publications and Conferences

Although the organization is considered by Congressional observers to be too young to influence the current education policy and budget debates in the Congress, it is preparing for future battles with education lobbyists through planned publications and conferences--the first of which is tentatively scheduled for the fall. The efforts will publicize education-al research in a non-ideological manner, Mr. Baldwin said.

"We will try to promote ideas similarly to the way the Heritage Foundation has done," he noted, adding that Learn Inc. will also follow the foundation's successful strategies in raising funds through direct-mail letters and in promoting ideas on Capitol Hill through seminars for Congressional staff members.

The organization, which has so far raised $70,000, has already begun its seminar program. Two monthly sessions, on tuition tax credits and the federal role in education, have taken place this year. A third, on textbook censorship, is planned for this week.

Response to the seminars "has been very good," Mr. Baldwin said. "The staffers say that if there's ever been an area where they need help, it's education."

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