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Federal File: He's Back

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William J. Bennett may no longer have a governmental soapbox, but he is still outspoken. The former Secretary of Education has surfaced frequently this year, commenting on the Presidential campaign and promoting his new book, The Devaluing of America.

His presence renewed rumors that Mr. Bennett intends to run for President himself.

"I'll leave that an open question,'' he said in a recent interview. "People are looking at it with a view toward '96, but we need to get the principles straight first.''

"There's clearly going to be a big battle in the next couple of years on what the Republican Party is and what conservatism is, and I'll be part of that,'' he said.

Mr. Bennett said he would probably continue to comment on the campaign, and he predicted that education would not be a major issue, though adding that Mr. Bush's vow to be the "Education President'' might change that.

"It's a Washingtonization of the issue,'' Mr. Bennett said. "It's risky. I've mentioned that to him."

He thinks the America 2000 strategy espoused by the current education secretary, Lamar Alexander, has "too much of a future emphasis, too much rhetoric about how we have to entirely do away with the schools of the past.''

"We can build on what works now,'' Mr. Bennett said.

He also said he thinks Mr. Alexander should actively support a California ballot initiative to give parents vouchers to send their children to private schools.

Critics say such a plan would benefit only students who are accepted by private schools--to the detriment of the less able students left behind. Mr. Alexander finesses that question; Mr. Bennett did not.

"There is no perfect equality,'' he said. "Choice would push us closer to equal opportunity than what we have. It gives at least some of these kids a chance.''

While Mr. Bennett's book is partially a memoir, it reveals no dark secrets. It is essentially an argument for basing public policy on moral values.

However, Mr. Bennett does reveal that conservative senators nearly derailed his first federal appointment for fear that he was too liberal, and that Cabinet colleagues kept their distance at the beginning of his education tenure, "because they thought I was going to be a failure.''

He also includes anecdotes that poke fun at his opponents. In one, an official of the American Federation of Teachers insists there are no bad teachers in Chicago. In another, Senator Edward M. Kennedy is embarrassed at a school visit when students advocate gruesome fates for drug dealers and the Massachusetts Democrat tries vainly to elicit any interest in the scarcity of jobs or home heating oil.--J.M.

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