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Education Lobby Aims To Rally Public Support

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Like President Clinton, education advocates here are hoping to stave off massive cuts in the programs they hold dear by enlisting public support.

"Education and the economy are the two issues that are going to be discussed on the national level" in next year's elections, Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, said at a news conference last week, where education leaders announced they have formed a new coalition, the Education First Alliance.

Education organizations are continuing to work through the Washington-based Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group of 77 associations and institutions, to monitor budget and appropriations developments on Capitol Hill.

But now that they are faced with a political climate in which proposals such as eliminating the Education Department are being taken seriously, education lobbyists have been forced to alter their strategy to rely more on the grassroots.

Unlike the Democrat-run Congresses of previous years, the Republican-controlled 104th Congress does not often see eye to eye with the C.E.F. Accordingly, the lobbying group has found its access and influence limited.

"We're for whoever supports education, and that has traditionally been one party more than the other," said John Forkenbrock, the C.E.F.'s president and the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. "Now we're dealing with a different set of players and a different set of circumstances."

Pointing to the Polls

Comprising 14 associations, most of which are also C.E.F. members, the Education First Alliance will focus on efforts to capitalize on what its members see as strong public backing for education.

Education lobbyists point to recent public-opinion polls that have consistently found support for federal education spending and a federal education presence embodied in the Education Department.

"This idea is to take the debate out of Washington and into local communities to show the direct relationship between [federal budget cutting] and what is happening in local communities," said Michael D. Edwards, the manager of federal relations for the N.E.A. "The idea is to make education a fundamental public-policy issue from now until whenever--1996 or beyond."

Similarly, President Clinton has focused on proposed cuts in education programs in attacking Republican budget plans, in an effort to protect those programs and to draw a distinction between his Administration, which has made education a big part of its domestic and economic agenda, and his Republican opponents.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a member of the new alliance, said the alliance aims to spark discussion on education "in every election district in this country."

Organizations participating in the alliance--including groups like the teacher's unions that have traditionally had a strong lobbying presence here as well as others that have been less aggressive--will launch media campaigns, urge parents and school officials to phone and write lawmakers, and organize town meetings, among other activities.

Getting Political

Fred Brown, the principal of Boyertown Elementary School in Boyertown, Pa., served as an illustration of the new strategy.

He holds periodical aluminum-can drives to help pay for his school's drug-abuse-prevention program, which also receives federal support. But now that some G.O.P. lawmakers have targeted the anti-drug program for budget cuts, Mr. Brown has become an amateur lobbyist.

He has invited the state's two Republican senators and his local member of Congress, a Democrat, to visit his school and see firsthand its need for federal funds. Earlier this month, he encouraged the parents of next year's kindergarten class to get in touch with those lawmakers and register complaints about plans to drastically cut education spending.

"We're exerting our political power," Mr. Brown said at last week's news conference.

"Being politically involved is not something we're skilled at or experienced in," he added later. "But we have to drive it home that this is a very serious issue. We're not talking about seat belts on school buses. We're talking about our bread and butter."

Student Aid

Education lobbyists hope the earnestness of educators like Mr. Brown will appeal to Republicans, who have said they are more inclined to listen to folks back home than to veteran lobbyists.

It remains unclear whether the strategy will work.

A similar coalition created earlier this year by the higher-education community, the Alliance to Save Student Aid, appeared to be successful in preventing major federal financial-aid cuts from being included in HR 1158, the $16.4 billion spending-rescissions bill that won final approval from Congress last week. (See related story .)

But the House Budget Committee's plan for balancing the federal budget by 2002, endorsed by the House this month, calls for an end to the in-school interest subsidy on student loans, an idea that was a part of the House Republicans' "Contract With America."

The Senate's budget plan calls for eliminating subsidies only for graduate students.

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