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Federal File: Tough neighborhood

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"Who is Richard Riley, what's his plan for American education, and will what he does in the next four years have an impact on you and your child?'' the journalist John Merrow asks at the beginning of the May edition of "Learning Matters,'' his monthly public-television program on education issues.

The topic is the federal role in education, and in a nod to the Secretary of Education, the broadcast is entitled "Mr. Riley's Neighborhood.''

"It's a tough neighborhood,'' observes former Secretary William J. Bennett, who is shown decrying the influence of education groups and noting that the Secretary has little authority over actual schools.

Being the Secretary, he said, "is like you're the captain of a big ship'' who's given a hat and a private dining room and a big steering wheel that turns out not to be attached to anything.

Mr. Riley and Deputy Secretary Madeleine M. Kunin take a considerably more optimistic view in the program, asserting that federal leadership in setting high national standards can have a significant impact.

The show traces the history of federal involvement in education and describes the major players in making federal education policy: the Education Department's political leadership; Congress, which "can be a demanding neighbor''; and "the invisible government'' of lobbyists, Congressional aides, and career bureaucrats.

Mr. Riley is shown meeting with top aides, speaking in various venues, and shaking hands on Capitol Hill.

The legislative branch is represented by Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., who describes the process of hammering out agreements as "some closed door, some open door, some compromises, some concessions, and some consensus--ultimately, consensus.''

Mr. Merrow explores in some depth the question of how much influence education groups, and particularly the politically powerful teachers' unions, have on policy.

Among other comments, he asserts that the National Education Association was disappointed in not getting a more prestigious appointment for Sharon Robinson, a union official who has been named assistant secretary for educational research and improvement--a slot the show incorrectly terms a "non-policymaking'' position.

The show also outlines Mr. Riley's career, including film clips of the Secretary as a much younger South Carolina state legislator.

Fellow South Carolinians attest to his toughness, and Mr. Riley himself says he will fight "when it's necessary.''

"Only I try to fight on top of the table, not under it,'' he says.

The show is to air this month on PBS stations.--J.M.

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