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When Students Grill Beyer, It's a Job Well Done

By Ann O'Hanlon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 1997; Page V01

Two classrooms of Manassas students are readying themselves for mock debates Nov. 3, the eve of Election Day. That evening at City Hall, each student will take on the role of either James S. Gilmore III (R) or Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D), Virginia's gubernatorial candidates.

To clarify his positions -- the better for students to repeat them that night -- Beyer himself stepped into Weems Elementary School on Thursday.

The project is part of a six-year civics course engineered by Regina Moore, a seventh-grade civics teacher at Metz Junior High School, and Athene Bell, a sixth-grade teacher at Weems.

Each year, students take on a current campaign and research the candidates, their positions and their advertising. The project includes making campaign literature and even drawing political cartoons. The finale is a series of one-on-one debates, student-to-student, staged for the community.

Beyer's visit gave this year's assignment special meaning. "Having this man here has made the whole experience real for these kids," Bell said. She said that when her students heard that Beyer would accept their invitation to visit the school, "they literally screamed hooray."

Gilmore could not attend, so Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-District 13) stood in for him, answering questions for all the students who picked Gilmore's name out of a hat.

Beyer told the students that they asked harder questions than he had been asked in his Wednesday night debate sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, a comment greeted with delighted laughter.

For all their youth and eagerness, the Manassas 11- and 12-year-olds did ask sophisticated questions, many of which got to the heart of the issues that have pestered the candidates during the last few months.

Katie Austen, 12, a seventh-grader, wanted to know how Beyer proposed to pay for his pledge of one computer for every five children in schools. (Most of it is already in the budget, he told her.)

Terrell Murph, 11, a sixth-grader, wanted to know how the lieutenant governor proposed making college possible and affordable for him. (New scholarship money is part of his plan, Beyer said.)

"What do you think of welfare reform?" asked sixth-grader Brian Scott, 11.

"I like welfare reform," answered Beyer, who then elaborated, maybe too much for the preteen crowd.

One question cut to the chase on an issue that has divided the candidates: whether residents of the Old Dominion pay relatively high or low taxes overall.

"Why do you feel Virginia is a low-tax state?" asked one youngster. Beyer responded that in most rankings, Virginia comes out 46th or 47th of the 50 states.

Will the proposal to cut the personal property tax hurt school funding, asked Danielle Spratley, 11. No, Beyer assured her, explaining how growth would enable school funding to increase while taxes are cut, under his plan. The seventh-grader said she hadn't understood how that was possible before but now she did.

"I just think that the funding should go to schools," she said.

And if anyone was wondering about a Beyer ulterior motive for being governor, sixth-grader Sarah Belcher got to the heart of the matter.

"Aside from being elected governor," the 11-year-old asked, "do you have any other political aspirations?"

"Nope," came the reply, and Beyer elaborated that he thinks being governor of Virginia is the highest office in the land.

The students left with their heads crammed with issues and pages of notes on subjects their parents might not even understand.

As for Beyer, he and his aides hit the road from Weems with a new member of the entourage: a stuffed donkey with a red, white and blue cap, courtesy of the students.

"Thanks for not giving me an elephant," he quipped.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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