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Sitting by the Phone

They've tried phone calls, letters, and 2,000 valentines, but so far National People's Action has had little luck wooing the Department of Education.

The self-described progressive group—which coordinates networks of grassroots coalitions—has pushed school construction bills in Congress and sought the attention of the Education Department to emphasize safe schools and discipline policy.

Members of the Chicago-based group have been seeking a formal meeting with administration officials since January 2001.

Members of NPA will be in Washington Nov. 17 through Nov. 20, and are making another big push for a têt-à-tête. Department heavy hitters, however, haven't embraced the group's tactics.

The relationship started out nicely enough. To introduce themselves to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, NPA sent him the Valentine's Day greetings, plus candy, last year. But after repeated letters and phone calls unsuccessfully requesting a meeting, things got rocky. In March of 2001, more than 1,000 NPA members rode 24 buses to the department's Washington headquarters, planning to storm the lobby. They were locked out.

After more unsuccessful communications, 400 NPA members made a drop-in Sunday-afternoon visit in June to the Virginia home of Deputy Secretary William D. Hansen to demand a meeting. (Ms. Parrish said they wanted to go to Mr. Paige's home, but couldn't get his address even with the help of a private investigator). As he stood on his front lawn, Mr. Hansen agreed to meet the following day.

But that day NPA members found themselves again barred from the agency building and met with Mr. Hansen outside instead.

Department officials say they've been fairly hospitable, considering NPA's strategies.

"Despite a significant disruption to [Mr. Hansen's] family life and entire neighborhood, he met with them the following day," said department spokesman Dan Langan. "Since then ... the lines of communication have been open with this organization, despite some pretty strong tactics."

NPA had better luck with the Democrats. During the Clinton administration, 500 NPA members packed the department's lobby and garnered a meeting with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley's top deputy. Mr. Riley pledged to, and did, visit dilapidated schools that NPA wanted to highlight and spoke at one of the group's national conferences.

—Michelle R. Davis

Vol. 22, Issue 12, Page 19

Published in Print: November 20, 2002, as Federal File

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