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Campaign Notebook

June 09, 2004 4 min read
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Election 2004

After a Debate, Mich. High School Agrees to Kerry Commencement Talk

Brandon Spader, a high school senior in Temperance, Mich., got more than he bargained for when he requested interviews with the two top contenders for the U.S. presidency.

Mr. Spader, who is the editor of The Goalpost, the student newspaper at Bedford Senior High School, asked both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee, for interviews.

Though Mr. Bush’s campaign didn’t respond (“I don’t blame him. He’s busy,” Mr. Spader said), Sen. Kerry’s folks said they’d be happy to send their candidate to Bedford High’s graduation ceremony on June 6, to be held just over the Ohio border at the University of Toledo.

But Sen. Kerry’s plans caused a ruckus in the 5,500-student Bedford school district over security, potential disruptions, and politics.

“We didn’t want this to be a political speech and didn’t want it to upstage the kids,” said Bedford High’s principal, Dennis Caldwell, who became a supporter of the visit once the details were ironed out.

Bedford school board member Steven R. Lennex objected to Sen. Kerry’s visit, saying it “injects partisan politics into high school graduation.” The school had never before had an outside keynote speaker at the commencement ceremony, Mr. Lennex said, because it has preferred to keep the focus on the students. Mr. Lennex’s daughter is also graduating. While he is a supporter of President Bush, Mr. Lennex said he would not want him to speak at the commencement either.

But at a May 18 school board meeting, students and speakers overwhelmingly supported the idea. Mr. Lennex backed down, though he remained concerned.

“This is political gold if you’re the Kerry campaign,” said Mr. Lennex, who said he had decided not to run for re-election to the school board this year because of the flap.

The visit scheduled for this past weekend was not expected to hurt Sen. Kerry’s chances in the November race. Michigan leans Democratic, though some analysts consider it a key electoral battleground.

Mr. Caldwell said last week that any disruptions to the graduation ceremony were to be kept to a minimum. Sen. Kerry was slated to talk about community service and giving back to the local community and nation. He planned to stay through the entire ceremony so as not to disrupt it, Mr. Caldwell said.

Members of the news media were to be corralled and kept away from the graduates and guests, and the ceremony was not going to be open to the general public. A discreet spot for protesters, across a river from the college venue, was mapped out.

Mr. Caldwell said he believed the opportunity to see a presidential candidate in person would inspire students to take more interest in the political process.

“We’re not interested in whether they’ll be for Senator Kerry or President Bush, but now they’ll be more informed in an area where this age group of kids doesn’t usually participate,” he said.

Mr. Spader, who wants to be a pilot and will attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the fall, predicted that voter turnout among people his age would increase because of Sen. Kerry’s visit. “A lot of people are going to vote now, just because they now feel they have a stake in the game,” he said.

And Mr. Spader’s interview? The student editor planned to grill Mr. Kerry before the ceremony. Though The Goalpost is finished publishing for the year, he expected his interview to be published in the local paper instead.

Big Tent

They call themselves national “Educators for Bush,” and their ranks include not only classroom teachers, but also prominent educational leaders, policy experts, and corporate executives.

Officials of President Bush’s re-election campaign, joined by Secretary of Education Rod Paige, announced the formation of the group of 43 supporters on May 27 at a press conference in Columbus, Ohio.

Among the members are Kathy B. Cox, the Georgia state schools superintendent, who was elected as a Republican; Jim Horne, the Florida state commissioner of education, who was appointed by his state’s governor, the president’s brother Jeb; Mike Moses, the superintendent of the 161,000-student Dallas Independent School District and a former Texas education commissioner under then-Gov. Bush; Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington; and Sandy Kress, a former White House adviser on education to Mr. Bush and a leading figure in the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Bush loyalists will help trumpet the president’s record on school issues and cultivate grassroots support for his policies among educators. Their mission is similar to that of other campaign coalitions for Mr. Bush, such as military veterans, environmental advocates, and minority groups, campaign spokeswoman Sharon Castillo said.

At least a few of the Educators for Bush are not professional educators. Edward B. Rust Jr., for instance, is the chairman and chief executive officer of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., based in Bloomington, Ill. He has served with several national groups aimed at improving education, including the Business Roundtable’s education initiative. He also served on President Bush’s 2000 transition team for education issues.

Ms. Castillo said bringing together individuals with direct classroom experience was less important than finding experts with a passion for school issues—some of whom may have demonstrated that commitment in business, public policy, or related fields.

“These are people who in one way or another share a passion in the education field,” Ms. Castillo said. “Our goal was to put together a diverse group of people. ... They strongly support what our president has done for education.”

—Michelle R. Davis & Sean Cavanagh

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as Campaign Notebook

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