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Talk-Radio Hosts Turn Up Volume on School Politics

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When dawn broke in Fort Wayne, Ind., on the last day of January, snow covered the ground, and the temperature huddled in the low teens. But inside the WGL radio studio, Paul Phillips basked in the glow of victory as he fielded calls on his morning talk show.

William Coats, the Fort Wayne superintendent of schools and the man Mr. Phillips had tarred and feathered daily on the air for the past 10 months, had announced his resignation.

While munching cake frosted with "Bye, Bye, Bill,'' Mr. Phillips punched up caller after caller critical of Mr. Coats, who resigned to join the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a private philanthropy in Michigan. "I just wanted to thank you and everybody who stood up to that fellow,'' one caller said. "I am so grateful that Kellogg is going to have that flake.''

Mr. Coats, who had held the Fort Wayne job since June 1990, and district officials scoff at the notion that Mr. Phillips had anything to do with the superintendent's departure; managing the foundation's youth programs represented a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' Mr. Coats said in a recent interview.

Hot-Button Issue

Whatever part he did, or did not, play in the schools chief's move, Mr. Phillips, 26, exemplifies the growing number of talk-radio hosts nationwide who are making education a pet issue and pumping up the volume on school politics.

While crime, Congress, and corruption top almost every talk-radio host's list of hot-button issues, media analysts say education is climbing fast.

George R. Kaplan, the author of Images of Education and a close observer of media coverage of schools, says education has become a favorite topic among talk-show hosts nationwide.

"When he has a little time and no scandal to talk about,'' Mr. Kaplan said, a talk-show host "always takes up the latest educational outrage.''

But the hunt for controversy is not the only reason radio personalities spotlight schools. In a 1993 survey of radio talk-show hosts in the top 100 U.S. markets by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, more hosts cited "improving the quality of education in public schools'' as "critical'' than gave such a rating to any other single issue.

And Mr. Phillips, who is the son of two teachers, says his concern about the subject is genuine.

"I fear for where public education is going,'' the Fort Wayne host said. "And without people getting involved, the so-called education experts--the people I like to call 'educrats'--are going to take over.''

'An Expensive Process'

Rising property taxes and declining academic achievement fuel talk radio's education discussions, according to hosts. Radio stations have led school-tax revolts in Georgia, New Jersey, and Utah. Talk-show hosts also generally beat the drum against outcomes-based education.

But the hosts who make education a centerpiece of their shows often do more. Using rhetoric steeped in the kind of fervor hosts usually reserve for Congress, they put school administrators under the microscope and under attack.

Mike Siegel of radio station KVI in Seattle frequently targets school officials throughout Washington State, who he says are overpaid.

"I've named names and read salaries of school officials to demonstrate the obnoxious level of income of the people who are not even in the classroom teaching,'' he said.

In Minneapolis, Barbara Carlson, a former city council member who is the host of a morning talk show on KSTP radio, regularly airs the home telephone numbers of politicians and city officials, including school board members.

"Education is such an expensive process that school board members don't want to be known,'' said Peter Thiele, who produces Ms. Carlson's show. "They think they're going to go to their little meetings once a week, and no one's ever going to call them.''

Early last year, after an audit cited sloppy management in the Minneapolis schools, Ms. Carlson broadcast the phone numbers of school board members and called for the head of the city's school superintendent, Robert Ferrera. Board members were swamped with calls from hundreds of her listeners, and within a few days, the board voted to suspend Mr. Ferrera; he eventually resigned. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1993.)

The Minneapolis Star Tribune said Ms. Carlson "played a huge role'' in Mr. Ferrera's troubles, and she agreed. "This job is so much more powerful than that city council seat,'' she told a columnist.

Leading the Critics

Paul Phillips's show debuted a year ago in Fort Wayne with school issues as the anchor.

Mr. Phillips, along with the school board's small conservative faction and its supporters, peppered officials of the 32,000-student district with freedom-of-information requests and discussed administrators' credit-card records, car-phone charges, and travel expenses on the air. When a high school renovation plan included an Olympic-size swimming pool, a high-tech radio studio, and other items that the critics said pushed the cost to almost $40 million, they campaigned against the project, collecting 10,000 petition signatures.

Mr. Phillips frequently criticized the school board as Mr. Coats's "rubber stamp.'' At one meeting, after Mr. Coats won a vote on a finance issue, members of the audience waved rubber stamps.

"The big thing that really upset me was his attitude that he ran the whole damn show,'' Mr. Phillips said of Mr. Coats. "He dictated policy to the school board instead of the other way around. He was a very arrogant individual.''

Mr. Phillips often targeted Mr. Coats in the musical parodies that he sprinkles throughout the show. In a send-up of the Beach Boys' song "Fun, Fun, Fun,'' Mr. Phillips changed the refrain to: "He'll spend your funds, funds, funds, till the voters take his school board away.''

Within months, the show's ratings had doubled, and Mr. Phillips had become a leader among Mr. Coats's critics.

"He really did mobilize the vocal minority that opposed the superintendent and questioned his actions,'' said Lisa Kim Bach, an education reporter for the local News Sentinel newspaper. The News Sentinel also reported on administrators' travel and entertainment expenses, she said, "but people who had read it in the newspaper took more notice of it when it came out on the Paul Phillips show.''

Joyce Preest, a local parent and an unsuccessful 1992 candidate for the school board, said, "Paul Phillips's show gave parents a forum to call with questions and concerns, pro and con, on issues the schools wouldn't address.''

Influence Said Exaggerated

Fort Wayne school officials say Mr. Phillips's appeal--and influence--is greatly exaggerated.

"When he first started,'' said Michael Malone, the district's executive director for human resources, "the show was certainly outrageous enough that there was some interest, the same interest that you have when you drive by an accident so shocking that you have to look.''

But his crusades had little effect on school policy, officials said. "All I can say is that every single initiative, every single recommendation that we made, was approved by the school board,'' Mr. Coats said. He specifically pointed to the failure of the petition drive against the high school renovation to persuade state officials to reject the project.

Mr. Coats described Mr. Phillips's personal attacks as "fairly relentless, even ruthless,'' and compared him to Rush Limbaugh, the national radio talk-show host known for his biting anti-liberalcommentary. "Limbaugh for me is far too negative and biased, but this guy makes Limbaugh look like a choirboy,'' the former superintendent said.

While district officials say they ignore Mr. Phillips's gibes, school lawyers are monitoring his broadcasts and the district has considered taking legal action over what officials call slanderous attacks.

Meanwhile, Mr. Phillips says he is keeping a close watch on the search for a new superintendent.

"If somebody comes in and wants to put O.B.E. in, or if somebody wants to do 'portfolio assessments' and 'nonstandard assessments,''' Mr. Phillips said, "then I'm going to fight it tooth and nail because I believe my arguments make sense and theirs don't.''

"People pay me for my opinion, and that's my opinion.''

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