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Federal File: Fedwatch?

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As the debate over the Department of Education's budget rolls on, Republicans have stepped up their attacks on what they consider questionable uses of federal education dollars.

A recent news release from the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities highlighting the breadth and scope of federal education programs includes one particularly interesting entry:

"Number of Department of Education programs to pay for closed captioning of the television show 'Baywatch': 1."

The syndicated show, which features California lifeguards, has an international audience. But it is widely regarded as little more than a showcase for beautiful men and women in swimwear.

It is captioned for deaf viewers under a special-education program that received $19 million in fiscal 1995.

Republicans have been chastising the department ever since a committee aide watching the program noticed a credit that mentioned the federal funding.

"It's amazing, once you start digging, what you'll find," said Cheri Jacobus, a committee spokeswoman.

But department officials say deaf people should have the same access to TV as everyone else. They say the department program in question pays for captioning for nearly all prime-time TV shows, as well as daytime programming, children's programming, and news shows.

"We don't believe in censorship," said Judith E. Heumann, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

GOP lawmakers also noted at a news conference last month that $1,000 in Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act money was used to pay for a safe-sex demonstration in a Chelmsford, Mass., school in which the presenter asked one student to lick a condom and another to make an "orgasm face." The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear a case brought by parents of students who attended the assembly.

The Republicans also cited an article in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, which reported that a Chicago high school used $35,000 of its Title I aid to send students to Mexico and Puerto Rico and $19,400 to offer legal counseling to students and parents.

"We welcome any analysis and review they come forward with," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a recent briefing on the department's 1997 budget proposal. "We've had a number of inquiries and we'll respond the best we can."

--Mark Pitsch

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