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Education Is Pivotal Issue in Races for Congress

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Democratic candidate John Frieden wants rural Kansans to know the Republicans' private-school-voucher plans won't do anything for them.

Mr. Frieden, who is seeking to represent Kansas' 2nd Congressional District, is telling rural voters that most of their communities don't have private schools where they could redeem the government-sponsored scholarships his Republican opponent, former Olympic runner James Ryun, and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole want to give them.

Mr. Frieden's ads say Mr. Ryun's agenda would divert tax dollars away from public schools to private schools. They accuse the 1968 silver medalist of wanting to get rid of the Department of Education.

The Ryun campaign counters that parents should have more control over their children's schooling.

Education's role in the race to fill the open 2nd District seat is typical this year as Republican and Democratic congressional candidates jockey for votes and control of Congress in the Nov. 5 elections.

The election messages are an extension of arguments that have raged in Congress for the past two years. What's at stake is whether Democrats regain control of Congress, with a mandate to expand funding for Department of Education programs, or Republicans retain majorities and pursue their agenda of scaling back those programs and promoting ideas such as private school choice.

Dueling Messages

Throughout the nation this fall, Democrats--aided by a massive advertising campaign by the AFL-CIO--are reminding voters of 1995 GOP votes to slash federal education funding, proposals to close the Education Department, and Mr. Dole's plan to use federal money to pay for private school vouchers.

"It's an outrageous attempt to paint Republicans as anti-education," said Craig Veith, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We are solid on education. All they want is a bigger bureaucracy in Washington."

Republicans like Mr. Ryun are responding that they're only out to get rid of government waste and put parents in charge of their children's education. They also cite the bipartisan September votes to raise federal education spending for the new fiscal year, a reverse of repeated GOP calls to cut it. ("Republicans Join in Call To Boost ED Budget," Oct. 9, 1996.)

The Olympian-turned-motivational-speaker supports vouchers but would not advocate a plan that took money away from public schools, said Deirdre Finn, Mr. Ryun's campaign manager.

And Mr. Ryun "believes we should reduce the size of the bureaucracy of the Department of Education and return the money to the states," Ms. Finn said. That could be done by taking the $327 million the federal government spends administering the department and giving it to states in a block grant, according to a position statement from Mr. Ryun's campaign.

But positions like those are playing into the hands of Democrats, who are winning the message wars when they focus on GOP proposals to abolish the Education Department, one congressional scholar said.

"It's a handy-dandy way of saying, 'He's against education,'" said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Education's Effect Disputed

Republicans like Mr. Ryun have not been successful in appeasing voters by saying schools would be better off without federal help.

Mr. Veith said most Democrats exaggerate in their education ads. Several GOP members did introduce bills to eliminate the department, but none of the proposals even came up for a vote in committee, he said. House Republicans did vote to eliminate the department as part of a nonbinding seven-year budget blueprint. But the GOP-controlled Senate removed the language, and a House-Senate conference committee struck it from a final compromise.

While the Democrats are scoring points on the Education Department issue, they probably won't strike the same chord on vouchers, Mr. Ornstein said.

As the campaign heads into the final weeks, Mr. Frieden's team thinks its education message is reaching voters in the Kansas district. The Democratic underdog has cut Mr. Ryun's 32-point lead to 7 points, according to a poll his campaign released Oct. 9. Mr. Frieden is 10 points ahead among voters who have seen his television ads, the Democrat's Washington pollster said in an Oct. 11 memo.

And Mr. Frieden is heartened by support coming from traditional GOP sources in the home state of the Republican presidential nominee. The Iola Register endorsed Mr. Frieden, breaking a 125-year string of backing Republicans. Mr. Frieden "is a mainstream moderate," while Mr. Ryun "is a right-wing ideologue who does not share the expectations that the great majority of Kansans have of their federal government," the newspaper said.

The Frieden campaign says it still has work to do. Its anti-voucher message may not be enough to sway voters in the eastern Kansas district, which stretches the length of the state. Most people still don't understand the details, according to Joe Myers, Mr. Frieden's press secretary.

And the Olympic runner's star power may be too much for a low-profile Topeka lawyer like Mr. Frieden to overcome. "His career is one most Kansans take a great deal of pride in," said John Koepke, the executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said of Mr. Ryun.

Control Up for Grabs

If Mr. Frieden captures the seat now held by a Republican in a GOP-leaning state, Democrats may be on their way to winning a majority of the 435 seats in the House.

Democrats now are 19 seats shy of a House majority, not counting two vacancies and the one independent who consistently votes with them. They need to take away three Senate seats to gain control there.

At this point, political pundits say the race to control Congress is too close to call. Democrats have an even chance of winning a majority, Mr. Ornstein said.

"Whichever way it goes, there'll be a majority in the single digits, and perhaps the low single digits," he said.

If neither side has a clear majority, moderates in both parties could band together to swing votes in favor of public schools, said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.

If Republicans keep control of the House and the Senate, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania and Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont will likely chair the education committees. Mr. Goodling, who has chaired the House panel since 1995, is expected to win easily, and Mr. Jeffords' term lasts through 2000.

Under Democratic control, those panels likely would be led by Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, whose re-election is virtually assured, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who has four years remaining in his term.

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