OLNEY – President Clinton took his education spending plan to Brooke Grove Elementary School on Tuesday, where students and parents responded warmly to his plea to “put first things first” by increasing school spending.
Parents dressed their children in Sunday-best clothes or school-spirit T- shirts, then lined up anxiously themselves to get a seat for the president’s 2 p.m. speech at the Montgomery County school. Few appeared to be concerned about the president’s sexual indiscretions and subsequent impeachment problems.
Laura Weiss, whose children are in the second and third grades at Brooke Grove, said she thought most of the younger children at the elementary school were “unaware” of Clinton’s problems. “Either way, he’s still a special person, and he deserves our respect,” she said as she waited for the president in the stifling humidity.
Fifth-grader Casey Bramhall said she tried to stay interested despite the heat.
“It was kind of boring because it doesn’t concern us right now, but in the next generation it will be pretty important,” said Casey, one of a couple hundred students crowded into folding chairs in front of the president’s podium.
Clinton, whose education plan faces strong Republican opposition, would use money from the federal budget surplus to increase the number of elementary school teachers, get all public schools Internet-ready and lower class size. He cited federal programs like the one that brought Brooke Grove two extra reading teachers this year, reducing the school’s average first- and second-grade class size to 15 students.
“I want America to say let’s put first things first,” Clinton told the fidgeting grade-school audience. “Our children are our future.”
Unlike Coleman Place Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., where Clinton took his education pitch Monday, 10-year-old Brooke Grove is in excellent physical condition and was a 1998-99 Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. But the Montgomery County school system is feeling the pinch of overcrowding, as student populations rise.
“We have to have more teachers for these swelling classrooms,” Clinton said. In addition to hiring 100,000 new teachers, Clinton wants to modernize thousands of schools nationwide.
Republicans say Clinton’s promises will come at a price and make local spending decisions more difficult.
“We don’t need Bill Clinton or [Vice President] Al Gore as our national superintendent,” said Mark Pfeifle, deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “Just mandating that we hire 100,000 teachers doesn’t provide enough flexibility for our schools.”
Pfeifle said GOP plans for education spending would give states and local districts more say on how to spend money allotted for educational improvements.
But one Republican who shared the podium with Clinton on Tuesday had no harsh words for his goals. Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, said her nine children all attended public schools and she wants to make changes before her 16 grandchildren feel the effects of crowded schools.
“I do not want them to be in crowded classrooms where there is no opportunity for individual attention,” Morella said. “We must meet the challenge. We must bring more teachers into the classroom.”
Morella was one of several state and federal officials, including Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, and Gov. Parris Glendening, who joined Clinton at Brooke Grove on Tuesday.
Fifth-grader Ross Freedenberg watched the president’s speech attentively before heading off to safety patrol duty. He knew at least a little about the president’s troubles, but said his parents taught him that it was possible to differentiate between personal and political.
“My parents don’t think he’s a very good role model,” Ross said. “But they think he has made good decisions as the president.
“I just thought it was cool that he came here.”