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Schools Provide Backdrop For Putting Edge on a Political Point

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Silver Spring, Md.

A gaggle of reporters, television cameramen, and political aides crowded into a corner last week as Sandra Flower's 5th-grade class awaited some special visitors. One child was so frightened by the media blob that she asked the teacher if she could take refuge in the hallway.

Soon enough, the V.I.P.s arrived: Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, visiting Highland Elementary School here to observe a school program that promotes good citizenship and drug-abuse prevention.

The program also happens to be financed by a portion of the federal budget that was on the chopping block in the House of Representatives that very day.

Later, at a brief news conference outside the school, the three Cabinet officers implored Congress not to approve budget cuts that would entirely eliminate funding, some $482 million in this fiscal year, for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. The House passed the bill later in the week. (See related story.)

"Maryland will lose $6.6 million in funding to support programs like 'Voices Versus Violence' that we saw inside today," Mr. Riley said. "Again and again, the message coming from the new Congress is simply this: Children of America, you're on your own."

Visits on the Upswing

It is not uncommon for a school to serve as the backdrop for politicians promoting a partisan message. Such visits are especially frequent in the public schools of the District of Columbia and its nearby suburbs, which include Silver Spring.

But they seem to be on the increase since the election of a Republican Congress turned Washington politics upside down.

Earlier this month, Mr. Riley and Vice President Gore visited another Silver Spring school, Forest Knolls Elementary, to promote a federal program that brings computers to poor classrooms.

And Moten Elementary School in Washington experienced a duel of sorts on March 1, when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., traveled to the school in the low-income Anacostia section to initiate his Earning by Learning reading program there.

The same day, Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., had lunch at Moten to draw attention to the Republican proposal to turn federal school-nutrition programs into a block grant, which Democrats say would ultimately lead to fewer meals for poor youngsters.

The Speaker's office had gotten in touch with Beverly Reid, the counselor at Moten Elementary, to see if the school would be interested in participating in Mr. Gingrich's program, which pays children for reading books. "We are in search of good programs for our students, period," she said.

Ms. Reid would not say whether it was pure coincidence that a Democratic lawmaker scheduled a visit to Moten the same day. A spokesman for Mr. Schumer could not be reached for comment.

Beef and Turkey Tacos

Several Democratic lawmakers, as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton, the First Lady, made such appearances the same week. President Clinton himself was scheduled to have lunch at a school in Silver Spring this month. The night before, however, a sleet storm hit the area, and the Montgomery County district canceled classes for the next day.

White House officials searched for a district that was open for business, and they were soon on the phone to Patrick Henry Elementary School in Alexandria, a Virginia suburb. Could the school be ready in about two hours to welcome the President?

Principal Leila Engman said her secretary thought the call was a prank, and hung up. A short time later, however, the superintendent's office called to confirm that Secret Service agents were on the way to secure the school for the President.

Mr. Clinton arrived around noon, waited in the cafeteria line for turkey and beef tacos, chatted with students--and made a statement about the lunch program.

"The children just cheered when he went into the cafeteria," Ms. Engman said.

The principal said she was not even aware that the President was intent on highlighting the school-lunch program until he made his statement. But the political nature of the visit did not bother her.

"We feel very strongly about the lunch program," she said. "Fifty-eight percent of our students are eligible. I think we ended up helping each other."

Do You Know Me?

School officials in the Washington area, like those outside the Capital Beltway, say that while visits by politicians almost always carry partisan undertones, they do not hesitate to welcome them because of the sheer excitement the events generate.

"It's a fun thing to have happen," said David Rorick, a spokesman for the Arlington County, Va., school district, just across the Potomac River from Washington. "I can't remember an occasion when we turned anyone down."

During one 1991 visit, a 3rd-grader demanded proof that George Bush was actually the President. He pulled out his American Express card.

Dolores Bohen, the assistant superintendent for communications of the Fairfax County, Va., district, recalled two very structured visits by President Ronald Reagan to local high schools during the 1980's. Everything was planned in advance, including the submission of student questions.

By contrast, President Bush once visited a Fairfax County high school with less than an hour's notice.

John Hollowell, the vice principal of James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., said White House and Secret Service officials visited one day on the premise of scouting out a future tour by Barbara Bush. An aide asked to make a phone call in private, Mr. Hollowell recalled.

"He came back a moment or two later and said he had an apology to make," Mr. Hollowell said. "He said Mrs. Bush isn't coming, but the President is--in 45 minutes. Can you handle that?"

(See education agenda during the 1989 visit. "He didn't want to meet any politicians," Mr. Hollowell said. "All he wanted to do was spend time with teachers and students."

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