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Spreading the word

As education debates on Capitol Hill escalate, it's becoming harder for federal lawmakers to escape related print, radio, and television ads from special-interest groups.

Last week, the American Education Reform Foundation, a pro-voucher group based in Indianapolis, ran full-page advertisements in The Washington Times and regional editions of USA Today, as well as political-opinion magazines such as The New Republic and TheWeekly Standard. The group urged Congress to pass, and Mr. Clinton to sign, a measure to give vouchers to low-income students in the nation's capital. The voucher measure later passed, 214-206, but still faces a near-certain presidential veto.

The total cost for the AERF advertising blitz was about $100,000--a relatively cheap way to snag the attention of powerful Washingtonians, according to the 4-year-old group's president, Kevin Teasley.

"This is not a campaign geared for grassroots folks," he said. The ads portray the District of Columbia public schools as entrenched in failure, while praising state-funded voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. One ad features former Rep. Floyd H. Flake, the New York Democrat and minister who left Congress last year in part to further the movement.

The foundation's educational arm also spent $30,000 on radio and cable television spots in the Washington market.

In October, another conservative advocacy group, Americans for Hope, Growth, and Opportunity, began sponsoring local radio ads to support a bill that would create tax-free education savings accounts. The Senate passed the measure late last month. ("Bill Previews Future Education Policy Battles," April 29, 1998.)

The Bedminster, N.J.-based group--chaired by 1996 GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes--used the ads as part of a larger, national campaign for school choice.

And conservative groups aren't the only ones spending big money to send a message to targeted audiences. Radio ads to promote federal funding for school construction aired recently in five Southern states and cost the National Education Association about $125,000.

The 60-second spots were broadcast last month in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, where "some senators needed to be reminded of the importance of the school modernization issue," said Stephen K. Wollmer, a spokesman for the 2.3 million-member union.

--JOETTA L. SACK [email protected]

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