WASHINGTON--Democratic lawmakers last week questioned the use of $26,750 in Education Department funds to have a Presidential address to schoolchildren staged and taped by a private company under White House direction.
Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, has demanded that Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander appear before the panel to discuss the matter.
“I am compelled to seek your justification of and rationale for spending scarce education dollars to produce a media event,” Mr. Ford said in an Oct. 3 letter to the Secretary.
Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House majority leader, issued a statement supporting Mr. Ford.
“The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the President, it should be helping us produce smarter students,” Mr. Gephardt said.
In a letter to Mr. Ford, Deputy Secretary of Education David T. Kearns said that urging students “to stay in school, to stay off drugs, and to work toward making schools violence free ,” which was the essence of Mr. Bush’s speech at a Washington public school, “is an important part of the mission entrusted by statute to the Department of Education.”
In his own defense, Mr. Bush told reporters that, with a Presidential campaign looming next year, “it’s going to increase the propensity for people in the media to say everything I do is political.”
Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said in an interview that he did not consider the expenditure unusual. He said he was “amazed” that Mr. Ford was so upset.
If the President wants to urge students to stay in school and avoid drugs, Mr. Goodling said, “what better setting than a school setting?”
In an exchange with White House reporters late last week, Marlin Fitzwater, the President’s press secretary, suggested that the television broadcast was a cost-effective way of reaching millions of students.
When asked if the speech would make a good commercial for Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign, Mr. Fitzwater replied, “We certainly would use any tape of the President, doing anything, anywhere in the world at any time if it was to his political benefit.”
The Oct. 1 address was broadcast on public-television stations and on the Cable News Network. Secretary Alexander had sent letters to schools urging them to arrange for students to tune in.
The speech took place at Alice Deal Junior High School, one of the most racially integrated schools in the District of Columbia, where floors were refinished and walls painted in preparation.
The department hired WETACOM Inc., a unit of a Washington public-television station, to produce the broadcast.
A story the next day in The Washington Post focused almost entirely on how the event was staged, and disclosed that department funds had been spent to hire the outside firm. After seeing that story, Representative Ford arrived at a legislative markup Oct. 2 demanding answers.
“Where did they get the money to stage that stunt?” the chairman asked William Hansen, the Educa- tion Department’s acting assistant secretary for legislation. He demanded that Mr. Hansen find out how much was spent and where it came from.
After calling the session to order, Mr. Ford said he had asked for a “quick, firm denial” that education-program funds had been used, “before this bounces all around the country and makes us look more ridiculous than we already do for ourselves.”
According to Etta Fielek, an Education Department spokesman, the money used for the event had come from an administrative account.
Although she could not provide a total figure, she said the $26,750 in E.D. funds represented only a portion of the event’s cost, with other funds coming from the White House.
She also said that “there was no question in our minds” that the unusual measures were more appropriate than staging the event as a news conference, a step that would have transferred editorial control to the television networks.
In his three-paragraph letter responding to Mx. Ford’s criticism, Mr. Kearns acknowledged that the department had spent the funds for “production costs associated with the President’s important discussion with our nation’s schoolchildren.”
Mr. Ford was unsatisfied by the deputy secretary’s reply, which was delivered late in the day on Oct. 2. At a subsequent markup on Oct. 3, Mr. Ford said the Education and Labor Committee’s phones “had been ringing off the wall” with complaints about the expenditure. The same day, the chairman sent the letter asking Mr. Alexander to appear before the panel.
Mr. Ford said he assumed that Mr. Alexander had been unaware that department money would be used for staging the President’s speech.
“The Secretary can’t know what all the munchkins in his operation are doing,” Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Goodling, the committee’s ranking G.O.P. member, said he did not see “any necessity whatsoever” for summoning Mr. Alexander.
However, he said, “I need to work very closely with Chairman Ford on important issues, and I don’t plan to antagonize him on issues that I don’t think are very important.”
Staff Writers Lonnie Harp, Mark Pitsch, and Peter West also provided information for this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as Democrats Question Use of E.D. Funds for Bush Address