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Taking The Offensive: State Democrats Using Education as Weapon

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Hampton, Va.

A few miles from Yorktown, where American soldiers trounced the British to win the Revolutionary War, Virginia's most powerful Democratic state senator is fighting his toughest election battle ever.

As he campaigns against a formidable Republican rival, Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews says his education record is the most powerful weapon in his re-election arsenal.

It appears that the Democrats, who have controlled the state's General Assembly since 1885, will need all the ammunition they can muster. The wave of Republican popularity that turned over the House or Senate in 14 state legislatures last year could find its way to the Old Dominion on Nov. 7. Democrats hold a four-seat majority in the Senate and a five-seat margin in the House of Delegates.

As they plot their election strategy, Democrats across this state--and in other state races around the country--are stirring up fears of Republican-backed education cuts and reforms while touting their own support for public schools to win over voters.

At a candidates' forum here in his hometown last month, Mr. Andrews, a 74-year old former school board member, tallied his accomplishments for the crowd in a school assembly hall.

Teacher-pupil ratios improved, he said. Dropout rates fell and test scores climbed during his 32 years in the state capital. He vowed to use his leadership post to oppose any funding cuts that would damage the foundation of the public schools.

Marty Williams, the two-term vice mayor of neighboring Newport News and Senator Andrews' GOP opponent, countered that the Democrats' record on education is nothing to boast about.

Mr. Williams, 44, told voters here that 4th-grade reading levels and SAT scores in the state have dropped while expenditures have gone up. And looking toward the future, the Democrats' plan promotes the same bureaucratic system that has failed, he argued.

He said he would like to abolish tenure for teachers, work to raise academic standards, and set up alternative schools for students with discipline problems.

"My opponent contends our public education system is working," said Mr. Williams. "I couldn't disagree more."

School Messages

With the control of the legislature up for grabs, both state parties have undertaken unprecedented fund-raising campaigns. The Virginia races have also drawn considerable national attention as Republicans seek to expand on their momentum while Democrats work to turn the tide.

Gov. George Allen, a Republican elected in 1993 in a precursor of last year's GOP romps, has launched a statewide fund-raising effort with radio blitzes and mass mailings to constituents in support of his party's candidates. His efforts, along with other party fund-raising activities, had garnered $2.5 million for GOP candidates as of Oct. 25, according to Chris LaCivita, the political director for the Campaign for Honest Change, the governor's political-action committee.

Democratic party officials, as of last week, said they had collected over $5.6 million for their candidates' "victory fund."

At rallies and in mailings, political hopefuls from both parties are using their money to appeal to the voters on education issues.

Last week, the state Democratic Party stepped up TV and radio ads, filling the airwaves with messages about its candidates' commitment to the public schools.

In another bid to highlight their commitment to public education, 50 Democratic candidates took to the road in a yellow school bus earlier this fall--the chief gimmick in a "Good Schools = Good Jobs" campaign. Legislators traveled 1,900 miles from the coalfields of southwestern Virginia to the rural Shenandoah Valley, making 17 stops in two weeks.

In poor districts, they warned of the effects of reductions in state school aid they said Republicans might pass. In more affluent communities, they decried the cuts in higher education that Republicans proposed this year.

For their part, the Democrats pledged to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 to a maximum of 22 children, provide grants to schools to adopt safety measures, and put a computer in every classroom in the state by 2000.

Tug of War

The campaign is an extension of a fight that began earlier this year. The tug of war between the Democratic-controlled legislature and Governor Allen over education policy started soon after Mr. Allen took office last year.

During his 1993 campaign, Mr. Allen vowed to extend parents' rights and offer them more educational choices. This year, he refused $8 million in federal grants under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, claiming it would lead to federal intrusion into state affairs.

But many of his own education proposals were quickly beaten back by Democratic legislators, who repeatedly mustered the necessary votes to thwart his plans.

The legislature rejected a $58.8 million cut in K-12 and higher-education programs the Governor proposed in his 1994-1996 budget. Democrats also spurned Mr. Allen's plan to earmark state lottery proceeds for local law enforcement, schools, or tax relief. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill this year that designates $314 million in lottery profits for public education.

On policy matters, Democratic lawmakers were equally unyielding. The General Assembly defeated Mr. Allen's proposal to abolish the family-life-education requirement in public schools. The plan would have required interested parents to enroll their children in the courses, rather than just allowing them the chance to keep their children out of sex education, as is now the case.

The governor has blasted his Democratic opponents as obstructionists. He would like to see a Republican majority in the legislature when he reintroduces many of his failed proposals in January. While he sees the need for continued investment in education, the Governor told an audience of business leaders recently, he refuses to "write a blank check with taxpayer dollars and keep doing things the same old way."

National Referendum?

While their party divisions in the legislature are not as narrow as in Virginia, three other states are also holding legislative elections this year--and education is a central campaign theme in those races as well. Some political observers believe these state races could serve as a referendum on national education policies.

Voters in Louisiana and Mississippi, where Democrats enjoy comfortable majorities in the Senate and House, and in New Jersey, where Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, are facing choices between legislative candidates who advocate sharply different strategies for schools.

Republican wins could signal a trend toward policies championed by many conservatives, such as deregulation of state education departments, expanded school choice, and voluntary school prayer.

Democratic victories could point to a public desire to expand education funding, promote teacher training, and other measures often embraced by Democrats.

The choice is provoking spirited discussion in many local election forums like the one here.

After hearing Mr. Andrews and Mr. Williams spar, Clater Mottinger criticized public school teachers.

"They tell kids about their feelings rather than teaching them how to spell and use the word in a sentence," said Mr. Mottinger, who has two children in private school.

Around him, clusters of people wearing campaign stickers were talking about academic standards and school safety as they filtered out into the crisp October night.

Stephen Hancock, an unemployed Hampton resident who has two children in the public schools, said he was not having a hard time making up his mind whom to vote for when he goes to the polls.

"The Republicans are all rhetoric--they don't have a record," Mr. Hancock said. "Andrews has made a contribution."

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