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Education pushed to head of the ballot

Supporters hold meetings to get issue in spotlight

WASHINGTON -- For one night, anyway, this year's election was about education.

In a nightclub in Florida, a brewery in Massachusetts, a yoga school in eastern Louisiana, and living rooms in every state, tens of thousands of people were uniting for public schools yesterday.

The roughly 3,800 "house parties" marked an attempt to restore public education as a political priority in an election debate dominated by war, terror, and jobs.

"It's important to parents, and it's important to communities, but I'm just not sure it's important enough to lawmakers," said Constance Higginbotham, an algebra teacher leading a town forum in Clay County, Fla. "When they see that we're mobilized -- teachers and parents, and people involved in classrooms -- then maybe we can mobilize them."

The liberal-leaning coalition behind the event wanted to get people discussing what it will take to improve schools, but it also was promoting a solution -- more money. The talking points provided to party hosts send a message that sweeping improvement demands greater investment in preschool, afterschool, school safety, teacher training, college aid, and more.

"The real issue is children learning, and not just the children whose parents can afford to live in the wealthy neighborhoods," said Barbara Collier, a fifth-grade teacher who is hosting a party in Bethesda, Md.. "I hope there is a huge national breakthrough in understanding that education is not being funded as it should be."

That claim is disputed by the Bush administration and supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2001 law requiring schools to show more progress or face mounting penalties.

The federal government, which provides less than 10 percent of all school money, has increased its spending in support of the law's programs 40 percent since Bush took office.

But the president's rival, Senator John F. Kerry, said the $24.3 billion being spent is roughly $27 billion short of the maximum amount authorized by law. He has pledged to provide all that money by rolling back Bush's tax cuts on wealthier people.

The gatherings ranged from college students in a dorm room, to neighbors in their church basement, to more than 150 people, including actress Helen Hunt, at a Hollywood home.

Although organizers billed the event as one big night of nonpartisan parties, their individual political ties are clear. One sponsor, the National Education Association, has endorsed Kerry. MoveOn.org, another event sponsor, has spent at least $10 million on ads to help Kerry through its three affiliates.

Representative John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who helped write the federal education law, said the coalition amounts to a smear campaign by "radical left-wing" groups. His office set up a website to counter the house-party coalition and its views about the law.

Reg Weaver, president of the NEA, said the goal is to get people thinking about public schools as they prepare to vote.

That's a big order. Only 5 percent of voters chose education as their most important issue in voting for president in an AP-Ipsos poll this month.

"The competition for leading issues is extremely tough," said Jean Johnson, senior vice president for the Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group. "You have a war, you have terrorism, you have the economy, you have health care costs, you have tax issues. Just because people care about education doesn't mean they're thinking about it when they vote."

John Puckett, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said the house parties were a good way to start the broader social movement that organizers want. But it will take much more, he said, "to escalate it into something more than a coffee klatch."

More is planned in the short term. Party participants are being asked to sign a petition that asks Congress and the president to increase education spending; to take part in a national call-in day to Congress on Sept. 29; and to encourage friends to register to vote.

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