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Education Secretaries Are Likely '96 Presidential Hopefuls

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HOUSTON--There was much speculation at the Republican convention about who might seek the party's nomination for President in 1996. Several of the most frequently mentioned candidates are familiar in education circles.

William J. Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, was often named as a contender for leadership of the party's conservative wing, and "Bennett '96'' buttons were for sale at a souvenir booth here.

Mr. Bennett wooed the conservative constituency with his speech renominating Vice President Quayle, which focused on a defense of traditional values.

The current Secretary, Lamar Alexander, also was mentioned as a 1996 hopeful at the gathering here last month.

He addressed both the convention and several state caucuses, touting the Administration's America 2000 education strategy and depicting the Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, as a tool of the National Education Association.

Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, a leader among governors in the move to set national education goals, also addressed the convention and several caucuses. He was interviewed frequently on television and chaired "leadership forums'' attended by party luminaries.

Mr. Campbell recently has emerged as one of Mr. Clinton's most vocal Republican critics.

He and Mr. Clinton were co-chairmen of the National Governors' Association's education task force when the national education goals were being negotiated with the Bush Administration. At that time, Mr. Campbell deemed Mr. Clinton's work "excellent and indispensable,'' and called him "one of the nation's pre-eminent education governors.''

In his convention speech, Mr. Campbell sang a different tune.

Mr. Clinton "heard the words 'lights, camera, action,' but he quit the process when it was time for action,'' Mr. Campbell said.

The South Carolina Governor was referring to Mr. Clinton's decision to decline membership on the National Education Goals Panel, which was set up to monitor progress toward the goals he played a key role in writing.

The National Education Association, which sent 371 delegates to the Democratic convention in New York City, fielded only 25 delegates and alternates in Houston.

At a meeting of NEA members attending the convention here, the Republican teachers expressed universal disapproval of Mr. Bush's support for private school vouchers.

In July, the union's Republican Educators Caucus sent a letter to the White House and Secretary Alexander opposing private school choice.

A reply, signed by Clayton Yeutter, then the President's domestic-policy chief, thanked the union members for their support and said Mr. Bush "understands your concerns.''

"At least it's a response,'' Laura Fortune, a retired teacher from Virginia who is chairwoman of the caucus, said in Houston.

Ms. Fortune also upbraided Secretary Alexander about choice during a policy forum held during the convention. She told him it is not fair to ask public schools to compete against private schools that can select their students.

Public schools "have a cost advantage'' and private schools "have a regulatory advantage,'' Mr. Alexander replied.

"If a [public] school isn't working, I don't think students should be stuck there because they're poor,'' he said.

At the meeting of NEA Republicans, the union's governmental-relations director, Debra DeLee, revealed that only 56 percent of NEA members voted for the Democratic Presidential nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, in 1988.

Some of those attending the meeting complained that the union reflexively endorses Democratic candidates. The NEA's Republican Educators Caucus claims that about a third of the union's members are Republicans.

Ronald Roman, a delegate from Metuchen, N.J., suggested that union endorsements be decided through a referendum of members.

"There are a lot of people who feel disenfranchised,'' he said.

Ms. DeLee said the union's executive committee selects a candidate they believe "best supports public education and other issues important to us.''

"That's not necessarily the candidate our members are going to vote for,'' she said, noting that even teachers may not vote for a Presidential candidate based on education issues.

In 1980, she said, the union asked its members both who they thought the N.E.A. should endorse and who they would vote for. She said 20 percent of respondents said the union should endorse the candidate they didn't intend to vote for themselves.

Children had conspicuous roles in many events during the convention.

Secretary Alexander's presentation on America 2000 concluded with a group of Houston schoolchildren reciting the six national education goals.

On another night, students from two Houston elementary schools named for President Bush and his wife, Barbara, served as flag-bearers at the opening ceremony.

The President and Mr. Alexander also visited Alexander Hamilton Middle School during the convention, where they saw a karate demonstration by Houston students enrolled in an anti-drug program created by the actor Chuck Norris.

Members of the Kids' Caucus, a group of students who won an essay contest sponsored by Scholastic magazine, presented a "youth platform'' to President Bush here.

The caucus, 12 students ranging in age from 12 to 18, drafted the platform in New York City during the Democratic convention, where they met with members of the Democratic platform committee.

Five of the caucus members who attended the Republican convention had a brief private meeting with Mr. Bush.

The children's platform opposes private school vouchers, calls for more education funding, and urges equalization of resources between rich and poor school districts. JM

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