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Ballot Box: Backtracking; Brown close-up

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On April 7, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander spoke to a group of reporters, and The Washington Post quoted him as saying that education would not be a major campaign issue because President Bush and the probable Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, generally agree on the subject.

"How can you have an issue if there is little difference?'' Mr. Alexander reportedly asked.

Two days later, The New York Times reported that White House officials were "irked'' by the comment.

On April 17, Mr. Alexander backtracked. In a speech at the National Press Club, he said three times that education would be "a big issue'' in the campaign.

"Maybe I didn't answer [the question] well enough,'' Mr. Alexander said, adding that conflicting reports of his earlier remarks had appeared in two newspapers. "Different people heard it differently.''

A Christian Science Monitor story that appeared the same day as the Post account took the stance that education would be a "battleground'' between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, and quoted Mr. Alexander as saying it "will be a good symbol of the President's leadership.''

There was no ambiguity, however, when Mr. Alexander answered the same question in a January interview with Education Week. He said education is not likely to be an important campaign issue because voters make Presidential decisions based on issues of "war and peace'' and the state of the economy.

The Secretary also contended that Mr. Bush's education record is an "example of his leadership,'' predicting that his record and the bipartisan nature of his work with the governors would deter Democratic candidates from making education an issue.

While changing his overall assessment, Mr. Alexander made the point again at the Press Club.

As Mr. Bush's record is examined, he "will look like an education President, will appear to be one, because I think he is one,'' the Secretary said. "His leadership in education is a good reason to give him a second term.''

Mr. Alexander also contended that it would be more difficult for Mr. Clinton to "be a strong advocate for revolutionary change in schools,'' because he will be "the establishment candidate,'' and under pressure from education groups to oppose ideas such as private-school vouchers.

"The President has an agenda and the Democratic nominee has got a problem,'' Mr. Alexander said. "He's got the business-as-usual crowd as his supporters. We'll see what happens.''

Former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, Mr. Clinton's remaining major opponent for the Democratic nomination, last week answered questions from more than 200 high-school students in Washington.

"We have a society that is leaving all of these problems for you to inherit,'' Mr. Brown warned. "It's more polluted and more dangerous.''

While a few students asked the candidate about education, their concerns touched on a wide range of subjects including the availability of the French abortion pill RU 486, experimental drugs for people with A.I.D.S., reforms of the health-care system, the decline of the family farm, and poverty and crime.

Gathered in the nation's capital to participate in the Close Up Foundation's government-studies program, the students from California, Kentucky, North Dakota, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Pacific Islands also told Mr. Brown what they consider to be the most important issues facing the United States and engaged him in a dialogue on various topics.

Regarding education, Mr. Brown called for tougher mathematics and science standards, the encouragement of international-exchange programs and the development of an International Peace Corps, and greater federal assistance to low-wealth school districts.

He also said the federal government should fund the placement of a computer in every classroom to enhance "productivity and allow students to advance faster.'' Borrowing a line from President Bush, Mr. Brown said the widespread use of computers in U.S. schools would "totally revolutionize American schools.''

The 60-minute session was taped by C-SPAN and was scheduled to air twice last week. Mr. Brown took advantage of that exposure to repeat on three occasions his toll-free fund-raising telephone number. By the second time, most of the students, who had memorized the number and greeted the candidate by shouting it upon his arrival, repeated the number in unison with Mr. Brown.

At the end of the program, the students gave the former Governor a Close Up Foundation sweatshirt, which Mr. Brown used to wipe his nose as he hustled away to another appearance.--J.M. & M.P.

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