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G.O.P. Takes Public's Pulse on Health of Schools

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As more than 200 people gathered in the Douglas Freeman High School gymnasium awaited the arrival of Rep. Dick Armey, R-Tex., they listened to 6-year-old Benjamin Kastroll.

"My mom is opposed to O.B.E. and Goals 2000,'' the 1st grader read from a prepared statement.

His mother, he continued, "says the government is intent on turning the children of America into illiterates. She says we are becoming a socialist nation.''

In about 120 seconds, Benjamin set the stage for 120 minutes of heartfelt denunciations of outcomes-based education, federal education programs, and school bureaucracies.

Participants in the "town meeting'' held here last week by the National Policy Forum were more favorably disposed toward home schooling, traditional learning, and the idea of the parent as the first teacher.

The Washington-based forum, described by its leaders as "a Republican center for the exchange of ideas,'' has over the past few months held town meetings like the one here on subjects ranging from taxation to health care.

Education discussions were also held in Portland, Me., and Lubbock, Tex.; the forum plans to hold additional meetings on the subject in Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

In all, forum officials expect to hold as many as 60 town meetings by mid-June, and to compile their findings in a report, scheduled for release in July.

'Ideas Matter'

"Our grassroots effort is designed to reach the average American and get their voice, regardless of political affiliation, into the public-policy debate,'' said Kip Howlett, the forum's vice president for policy. "We have too many people in Washington telling people how to run their lives.''

Mr. Howlett said the forum plans to stay in business after July, but said it is too early to tell what its role will be.

He said the forum, created last fall by Republican Party leaders, responds to the "vision'' of Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, that the party's loss of the White House in 1992 stemmed largely from a failure to explain the principles it stands for.

"Haley's vision, I think, is that ideas matter in politics, principles matter in politics,'' Mr. Howlett said.

But he was quick to point out that members of all parties and citizens of all political stripes are welcome to attend the town meetings and use the report's findings when they are released.

It is a touchy issue because the organization was established as a nonprofit entity, which means that it cannot get directly involved in elections and still maintain its advantageous tax status.

But questions have been raised over the purpose of the forum and its relation to the party's national committee. Mr. Barbour, for example, is the chairman of both the forum and the R.N.C.

And the July report will be available in time to help candidates seeking election or re-election to Congress in November. It could also be helpful to Republicans seeking the Presidency in 1996.

In an interview after the meeting here, Representative Armey said the meetings should be helpful in the midterm elections. "Any good candidate, no matter where he's running, has to be in touch with what people believe,'' he said.

But forum officials' sensitivity on the issue of the organization's partisan overtones was apparent last week during remarks by Robert B. Okun, a former Education Department legislative official in the Bush Administration who is now the deputy floor assistant for the House minority leader, Robert H. Michel of Illinois.

"I think it's important for the Republican Party to listen,'' Mr. Okun said. As he offered his advice, forum officials appeared to cringe at the overt references to the G.O.P.

'Our Values'

With a local radio-talk-show host, Blanquita Cullum, moderating the forum and Mr. Armey serving as "chief listener,'' the tone of the town meeting shifted between acerbic and emotional, occasionally reaching a fever pitch.

Among those joining Mr. Armey on the dais were William Bosher, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction; Michael Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association and the G.O.P. candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia last year; and Robert Holland, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper.

Elizabeth Kastroll, the mother of young Ben, received the evening's warmest response when she responded to Mr. Armey's confirmation that federal spending on education amounted to about 6 percent of all costs.

"Wouldn't it behoove us to take their 6 percent and tell them to put it ...'' Ms. Kastroll said, before being drowned out by applause.

She said later in an interview that she had come to the forum because "I'm a conservative Republican and I just wanted to show my support.''

Other participants shared Ms. Kastroll's suspicion of federal education initiatives. Some audience members came from as far as 100 miles away to hear about how their taxes are being spent, or because they worked in the state education department, or because they had a particular local problem. One man said he is writing a book on the conflict between federal mandates and local control.

Perhaps no other idea was greeted with as much consistent enthusiasm as the need for parents to rein in their children and teach them values, rather than abdicating that responsibility to the schools.

Parents, said one participant, Jeff Layne, are "trying to be buddies with their kids rather than disciplinarians.''

Debbie Hand rose to speak out against outcomes-based education when she was pre-empted by applause after introducing herself as a "professional'' mother.

Most of the crowd appeared to agree with Ms. Hand's assessment of O.B.E.--a concept that calls for assessing students and schools based on standards for what students should know and be able to do--and to share the common perception that it is intertwined with such ideas as cooperative learning and values education.

But a few people said they might be willing to allow schools to experiment with O.B.E. as long as a traditional academic model was also available.

One woman, Ruth Lynch of nearby Midlothian, Va., a former teacher who said she was known as "Sarge'' because of her tough disciplinary tactics, said the meeting revealed that education is too much "a political football.''

But she was countered by a man who said that "politics is very much a part of education'' and urged participants to help elect "people who share our values.''

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