Busy students have good read on political ways and means Balto. Co. teens are 'lobbying smart' in trips to Annapolis

February 24, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Rachel Brown had physics homework; Kerry Rosenberg, a geometry test to study for; Aaron Beytin, a paper on Chaucer.

But on this night, the Baltimore County student council leaders had more urgent business: State legislators were considering a bill that would allow counties to reduce school spending, and Rachel, Kerry and Aaron weren't about to let them get away with it.

So the three climbed into Aaron's tan Pontiac station wagon and drove to Annapolis, armed with 30 copies of their position statement, a list of legislators on key committees and a good reading of the political influences that might affect their votes.

"If we can change one or two votes, we can change the whole thing," Aaron said, prepared to pounce in the State House lobby.

Baltimore County hasn't seen a group of council leaders quite like this year's crop.

For the first time, the students are taking their agenda out of the lecture hall and to the school board and the legislature, lobbying for magnet schools, a stronger gifted and talented program and relief of overcrowding. They've surveyed students on the

qualities the next superintendent should have. And they're creating a computerized bulletin board so students can vote by e-mail.

Some presidential wannabes, others just government junkies or zealots after a cause, the teens are not merely play-acting politics.

"They're lobbying smart," said delegate Michael J. Finifter, a Baltimore County Democrat, one of seven legislators hit up by the teens Monday night. "They've done their homework, and a lot of adults don't. They target the proper committee members. I was surprised to see students who know so much about the issues."

Back home, the students show up at school board meetings dressed like young professionals and wait quietly in the front row for public comment time.

That's president Rachel Brown's cue to approach the board with her big smile and let's-move-it-along manner, ticking off bills that the countywide student council has passed.

Last week, she told the board that students planned to lobby lawmakers against the spending bill, which the board supports.

"Before, it seemed to students that we'd pass bills and they'd never go anywhere," Rachel said. "We wanted to make sure they'd go somewhere, either the County Council or the board of education or the General Assembly."

Watching the teens, says board member Robert F. Dashiell, "I feel a certain amount of nostalgia. It almost takes me back to the '60s, when students were the bedrock of many of the TC movements of the time. And many times, I find that I agree with them."

Some of the young leaders are also active in the state's association of student councils, whose duties include recommending students for a seat on Maryland's Board of Education.

It's an election so competitive that one member recently proposed limiting campaign spending -- which, in these circles, takes the form of potato chips, playing cards, candy and fortune cookies.

Many started their political careers in middle school.

By now, missing classes for government meetings is a way of life.

Rachel has nonetheless maintained a straight-A average since kindergarten, and her schedule is dizzying. She works evenings at the Reisterstown library; is on her school's mock trial team and serves as a student representative on the PTA; plays the French horn in the all-county band and recreation basketball; attends Hebrew school; is active in the B'nai B'rith Jewish youth organization; and volunteers Sundays at her congregation.

"I've given up keeping up with what Rachel is doing," said her mother, Natalie Brown.

Rachel, a self-described moderate Republican, argues politics with her parents, both Democrats. "They think it's a phase I'm going through," she said.

"My ultimate goal is to be some sort of politician," she added. "I want to be [U.S.] president."

Spearheading the group's legislative agenda is Aaron Beytin, an Owings Mills senior who has already worked on the campaigns of a number of local legislators.

"We're probably going to see him in the White House one day," said Barbara J. Reed, a faculty adviser to the student council. "He's really into this."

Kerry, the council's technological guru and a sophomore at Franklin High, is an aspiring Foreign Service officer who plans to be enrolled in French 6 and Spanish 5 by his senior year. Already, he knows government procedure the way other teens know rock lyrics.

"I think when he was an infant, instead of reading him fairy tales, someone was reading him Robert's Rules of Order," said schools spokesman Donald Mohler. "I've never seen a kid so knowledgeable in parliamentary procedure."

Still, life isn't always easy for a student politician.

Take the school board's recent decision to hold classes on Presidents Day to make up a snow day -- a decision the student council backed.

The next day was trouble.

"They were all mad at me because they thought it was my fault," said Perry Wasserman, a Towson High freshman who sits on the council's 14-member executive board.

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