To President Clinton, Brooke Grove Elementary School in Olney was the perfect backdrop yesterday to expound on Democratic budget proposals to cut class sizes and recruit better teachers, and to criticize Republicans for pushing a $792 billion tax-cut plan.

"Students learn better, especially in the early grades, in smaller classes," Clinton told a crowd that school officials put at 1,500 on the playground's newly laid asphalt in the sweltering heat. He spoke of recent research showing that children taught in small groups at a very young age do better in school and are more likely to go to college. "We have no excuse not to act on it."

Clinton's trip to Montgomery County was purely political in the grand scheme of things. To the 600 or so students at Brooke Grove, some of whom were so excited that they awoke at 5 a.m. for school, the visit was intensely personal.

"This is something I'll tell my kids about," Sara Falk, a fifth-grader at the national Blue Ribbon school, said proudly. "I never dreamed the president would come to our school." Sara even painted her nails especially for the visit in a rainbow of two-tone colors. "I heard he likes colors."

Her friend, Lindsey Maley, dressed in a purple ankle-length dress for the day, said having Clinton visit her school was a "great honor."

And both liked his message. "We have 34 kids in our class, and it's way too stuffy," Sara said. "There's hardly any room for the overhead projector."

Last year, the Clinton budget included $1.2 billion to hire 30,000 more teachers across the country to lower class sizes. In Montgomery County, the funds have helped hire 2,000 teachers in the last two years for the county's Reading Initiative program. The system is working to lower reading class sizes in first and second grades to no more than 15 students and to reduce the number of students in high school algebra classes.

That $1.2 billion was to have been the first federal payment toward a goal of hiring 100,000 teachers for the class size reduction initiative. And Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley came to Brooke Grove to hold Republicans' feet to the fire.

The dais of Maryland dignitaries included Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) and Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella, who voted to impeach Clinton.

The Republican proposal to use a projected budget surplus for tax cuts, Clinton charged, would force cuts in education spending of 50 percent over the next 10 years. And, with record enrollments as baby boomers have children, more than one-third of the nation's schools in need of repair and 2 million teachers about to retire, Clinton said the GOP's "basic arithmetic" doesn't add up.

Education theories come and go, said first-year Reading Initiative teacher Robin Davis, but lowering class size is her lasting passion. "Less is more. That is, less kids in a primary reading class means more individual instruction," she said. "My students will learn better this year."

To press the point, Clinton dropped in on Dale Tepper's first-grade reading class. There, he fielded questions like "Did you come in a helicopter?" confided that he put Chelsea's favorite children's stories on his bookshelf and read them when he missed her, and read the students the book "That's What a Friend Is."

When Ian Weaver popped up and said he'd like to be president, Clinton offered him this advice: "Learn a lot. Learn to read a lot. And make friends with all kinds of people."

Ian said later he wants to be president so he can "visit all 90 states."

After the president made his speech, and after he, the Secret Service entourage and the TV cameras left, Tepper said she'd been waiting 25 years to hear a message like Clinton's. When she was a first-year teacher in Prince George's County, she declined to join a strike for higher pay. "I said, 'If you strike for smaller class sizes, I'll be right there.' It's just so important," she said, herding her hot and tired first-graders inside for "a lay-down party."

Principal Eoline Cary, who spent the weekend weeding the courtyard, supervising a PTA-sponsored landscaper spreading mulch and watching Secret Service agents crawl around the ducts, was pragmatic.

"Sure, we're the photo op. But this is about something I really believe in," she said. Then she paused and giggled. "I just can't wait to go home and call my mother."

CAPTION: President Clinton speaks to students at Brooke Grove Elementary School as part of his campaign in support of education funding instead of a Republican-backed tax cut.

CAPTION: Speeches on education policy by the president and others aren't enough to keep Molly Balkam from yawning as she and other Brooke Grove students sit in the warm sunshine.