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Sunday, March 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Obama at Garfield to talk up education

Seattle Times reporter

Of course, the schools need more money. And, yes, the system needs reform.

But if you ask U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who stood onstage at the Garfield High School gym Saturday, parents also need to take stronger charge of their children's education.

"That money's not going to make a dime's worth of difference if, when your child comes home from school, you don't turn off that television," he said, to applause.

More than 1,500 people showed up at Garfield to get their inspiration from the first-term Illinois senator, one of the luminaries of the Democratic party.

Obama gave his views on the importance of education, mixing personal stories with practical advice and urging the audience to action.

The senator was making other stops in town Saturday to raise money for Sen. Maria Cantwell, who sponsored the "Innovations in Education" event. Up for re-election, she faces Republican Mike McGavick and Green Party candidate Aaron Dixon in November's election.

The Garfield audience gave Obama long, loud standing ovations, but some residents resented the political nature of the event, saying it should have included a more substantive discussion on education.

Others waved signs and yelled insults at Cantwell for her vote to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq. The U.S. invaded three years ago today.

The event focused on education, with presentations by Seattle Scores, Friends of the Children and Making Connections, programs that help prepare low-income children for college.

In a joint letter to the Republican House leadership, Obama and Cantwell said these kinds of programs are at risk under Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year 2007. The proposal includes significant cuts in federal funding for college-prep programs, they said.

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Cantwell raised a particular concern about the Pell Grant program, which helped her become the first in her family to graduate from college.

That grant has been frozen at $4,050 per person for several years now, she said, even as tuition costs have grown.

"This is a battle about the priorities of our country," said Cantwell.

Tucker Bounds, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, reached by telephone Saturday, said the Pell program has actually expanded under Bush's leadership. He also said the administration has made it a mission to educate all of America's children and put more accountability in schools.

He dismissed Saturday's event as political.

"I believe that this is a pretty desperate attempt for her to capitalize on the credibility Senator Obama has in the state of Washington," said Bounds.

Obama became something of a celebrity after his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He was a state senator at the time and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate.

After the speech, he became known as an inspired teller of stories, most particularly his own: the son of an African goat-herder, a skinny boy with a funny name who grew up to become the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Obama captivated the audience Saturday with stories of people he had met in barbershops and beauty salons, on street corners and after speeches, all of them wondering why he would get into politics.

Obama sympathized, saying he understood politics looked like a game played only for power. But then he gave his trademark message of hope.

He told the story of a voter born in 1899, when women couldn't vote and black men's right to do so was widely denied.

He listed all the good she had witnessed in the 20th century, from the civil-rights movement to the coming of Social Security. That woman voted all her adult years, Obama said, convinced change would come.

"She had seen hope on the horizon," he said. "And she had marched on."

That message came through to Isaiah Sarju, a sophomore at Garfield. As he listened, the words sounded familiar, like words that would come from himself.

"He puts it all together, helps me understand what I'm thinking and feeling," said Sarju.

The senator was so inspiring that some residents said they wished for a larger venue, where the community could engage him in a real discussion about reforming American education. They said Garfield was clearly chosen for its symbolism, as the school in the heart of Seattle's black community.

And while some were appreciative of the gesture, others dismissed it as too little, too late. Eddie Snead, a social-studies teacher at Cleveland High School, said he invited Cantwell to speak to students last year, but his call to her office went unreturned.

"All of a sudden, election year, she's here," he said.

The anniversary of the Iraq war loomed large at the event, with some residents questioning whether the war was taking funds away from schools.

At one point, an angry call came from the audience, accusing Obama of supporting the war. He responded calmly.

"Hold on a second. I did not vote for the war, young man."

The audience went wild with applause.

Cantwell had a harder time deflecting the protesters. At the start of her speech, some stood up in the bleachers and yelled over her words, holding up a banner.

King County Executive Ron Sims stepped up to the podium and started chanting Cantwell's name.

The crowd joined in, and the protesters were drowned out.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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