- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2000

House Republicans will promote themselves at home next week as friends of education, a message they have repackaged drastically since the days when Newt Gingrich and his troops promised to abolish the federal Education Department.

Over their weeklong recess, incumbents will stress to their constituents that Republicans are devoted to returning as much money as possible to states and local school boards with fewer federal strings attached.

"It's the No. 1 issue in the country," said Rep. Bob Schaffer, Colorado Republican and co-chairman of a panel asked to develop an education message for House Republicans.

In this year's battle to retain control of the House, there's ample reason for Republicans to turn to education as a winning issue. Education is usually among the top three issues for voters, and Democrats traditionally have carried the topic as their own.

Polling conducted in late March by Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates was encouraging for Republicans: Given a choice between a Republican candidate who emphasizes moving dollars from Washington to the classroom and a Democratic candidate who advocates affordable prescription drugs for seniors, potential voters favored the Republican, 44 percent to 42 percent.

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republicans' communications strategy, said Republicans have improved from a 22-point deficit against Democrats on the issue of education last May to 9 points in the most recent polling.

"People are starting to see that Republicans are committed to making public education work," Mr. Watts said. "I want to compete [against Democrats] in every arena."

The GOP essentially is trying to put a friendlier face on a familiar theme, that education is best managed at the state and local levels. But Republicans' attempt to get across that message in 1995, when they took control of the House, proved disastrous.

At the time, Speaker Newt Gingrich and the class of freshman Republicans led the call to abolish the Education Department. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole campaigned on the theme in 1996.

Many voters got the impression that Republicans were anti-education. Mr. Dole lost, and House Republicans lost seats in each of the last two election cycles.

"The underlying philosophy was correct," Mr. Schaffer said. "But attacking the department in such harsh and negative terms was misinterpreted."

Now Republicans have a different approach: They want to divert as much money from Washington to local school districts to improve education and reduce waste in the federal bureaucracy.

"We're getting smarter about how we engage the American people," Mr. Shaffer said. "Our free-market approach to learning in America is resonating more than the Democrats' message of new government programs in Washington."

Democrats say Republicans may have a new message but it won't fool voters.

"The Republican majority has tried to close the Education Department, slash funding for student loans and block the hiring of 100,000 new teachers," said John Del Cecato, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Republicans sense that voters know their anti-education record, so they've adjusted their rhetoric."

But House Republicans point to legislation they have approved under the leadership of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican and a former public school teacher. Those initiatives include an "Ed-Flex" bill, signed by President Clinton, which gives states increased freedom to spend about $11 billion in federal funding.

The House also has approved a bill known as "Straight-A's," which would give states even more flexibility in return for efforts to improve student test scores by 25 percent over five years. The Senate has yet to approve it.

The Republican-led Congress has increased spending on education from $22.7 billion in fiscal year 1996 to $33.8 billion in the current fiscal year. In some cases, Congress has exceeded President Clinton's funding requests.

House Republicans also are promoting educational savings accounts, which would allow parents to put money in tax-free savings accounts to pay for elementary and high school education expenses, including private schools. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the likely Republican presidential nominee, also supports the accounts.

A senior House Republican leadership aide said Mr. Bush has helped "close the gap" with Democrats on education but added that some veteran House Republicans are not convinced it's an issue worth challenging Democrats' advantage.

"The members who've been around here longer have a deep-seated belief that education is a Democratic issue and we just shouldn't be talking about it," the aide said.

Mr. Shaffer acknowledged the message is a tougher sell with party veterans.

"Republican candidates feel like they've been beaten up over the years," he said. "It's not that we've discovered the issue; we're energized in a new way."

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