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Federal File: Free speech; Senatorial mystery

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New York State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sebol last month told Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander that Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, was out of line when she criticized the state board of regents' decision to rewrite the state's history curriculum.

"A federal official has no business meddling in the curriculum-making policy of the state," Mr. Sobol wrote to Mr. Alexander.

Ms. Ravitch had said at a news conference that she wondered if the regents had read the policy they were replacing, which was adopted in 1987.

"It suggests he's pretty thin-skinned," Ms. Ravitch said of Mr. Sebol in an interview last week.

"I did not give up my freedom of speech when I took this job," she said, adding that Deputy Secretary of Education David T. Kearns defended her right to speak out on such issues in a reply to Mr. Sebol.

Ms. Ravitch noted that she did not bring up the topic of the New York curriculum, but was responding to a question about it at a news conference following an address to the New York School Boards Association on the general subject of multiculturalism.

She said it was "ironic" that the previous question concerned Leonard Jeffties Jr., a black professor at City College in New York who has become a target of criticism for his views on whites.

"Here I am defending Leonard Jeffries's right to speak and I'm losing mine," Ms. Ravitch said.

The nomination of Carolynn Reid-Wallace to be assistant secretary for postsecondary education was approved without incident by the Senate last week, but some observers are wondering why it took so long.

Her nomination was unanimously approved by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Nov. 14, along with two other nominations for Education Department posts.

The other two nominees were confirmed the following day, but not Ms. Reid- Wallace, a former administrator at the City University of New York.

Department spokesmen said last week that they did not know why the delay occurred, and Secretary Alexander contacted senators about the delay.

Aides on the Senate Labor Committee said they also did not know why the nomination was held up, although some noted that noncontroversial actions are sometimes delayed to gain leverage in unrelated partisan disputes.

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