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Christian Coalition Puts Education at Heart of Election Agenda

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Washington

The Christian Coalition plans an assault on the Democratic Party and "Clinton-style liberalism" in this fall's local, state, and Congressional races, with several education issues at the heart of the group's agenda.

Opposition to outcomes-based education and support for "voluntary" prayer in public schools and vouchers for private education drew cheers time and again among the 3,000 people who attended the group's recent conference here.

"We will never have quality education in this country until we end the monopoly of public education," declared former Vice President Dan Quayle, one of four potential 1996 Republican Presidential candidates to speak at the conference. "We must insist that every parent in America have a right to choose where their child goes to school."

The Christian Coalition, founded as a grassroots political organization five years ago by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, is at something of a crossroads. The coalition and other segments of the so-called religious right were blamed in 1992 for contributing to the defeat of President George Bush. The strongly conservative tone of the Republican National Convention that year was said to turn off many voters.

But Mr. Robertson's political organization continues to grow, now claiming about 1.4 million members. The coalition appears poised to play an influential role in the selection of the 1996 Republican national ticket.

In addition to Mr. Quayle, other potential G.O.P. Presidential candidates appearing at the conference on Sept. 16 and 17 were former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Former Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole appeared on behalf of her husband, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, another potential contender.

Since President Clinton took office, the coalition has reached beyond social issues such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality to include support for term limits for elected officials and opposition to the President's budget and health-care-reform plans.

"We are seeing the Christian Coalition rise to where God intends it to be in this nation--as one of the most powerful political forces in the history of America," Mr. Robertson, the chairman of the organization, told the conference.

A More Moderate Tone?

Ralph Reed, the executive director of the coalition, said the group would distribute more than 30 million voter guides nationwide before the November elections.

The guides will focus not only on Congressional races, but also on state gubernatorial and legislative contests, as well as some school board elections in areas where there are active Christian Coalition chapters, officials said.

The nonpartisan voter guides will list whether candidates support or oppose key issues of interest to the coalition, including "voluntary prayer in public schools," "parental choice in education," and outcomes-based education.

"We've got to go out in the next six weeks with the largest pro-family, pro-Christian turnout in history," Mr. Reed told participants.

One observer who has attended the coalition's conferences the past few years said the tone of this session was more moderate.

"Ralph Reed has attempted to change the image of the coalition, to make it seem more moderate," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based group that has frequently been critical of religious conservatives. "Yet the rank and file remains motivated by the so-called social issues--abortion, gay rights, the schools."

"They continue to demonize the public schools," Mr. Conn added. "Several speakers were bitterly critical of the public school system. And the support for voucher systems seems to be constant."

O.B.E. Draws Flak

Most of the Presidential hopefuls at least mentioned the coalition's hot-button educational issues.

"Bill Clinton wants America to say yes to more federal control of local education," said Senator Gramm, drawing a thunderous "no" from participants.

Mr. Alexander said: "School choice is the Berlin wall of social policy. One day it will come down."

And the Administration's Goals 2000: Educate America Act emphasizes "outcomes-based education" rather than giving parents a choice of public or private schools, he added.

Several people in the crowd wore T-shirts with the slogan "Repeal Goals 2000." The federal education-reform law has begun to draw more attention from conservative critics for its emphasis on national performance standards.

About 300 participants crowded into a session devoted to fighting O.B.E.

"It is something that is difficult to explain, yet so dangerous," said Carolyn Steinke, the president of Parents Involved in Education, a California group that has fought the performance-based testing system in that state.

Ms. Steinke said one of her group's chief complaints about the California Learning Assessment System is that it replaces traditional tests with assessments that require students to discuss emotions. Critics oppose such techniques on the grounds that they invade personal and family privacy.

Gary G. Kreep, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Foundation, an Escondido, Calif.-based group that has also fought the tests, said proponents of outcomes-based education will keep pushing the reform even if one plan is defeated.

"The other side is not going to give up," he said.

"If you don't leave here scared as heck, then we haven't explained what's going on, or you haven't been listening," he added.

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