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Private party?

The Department of Education is under fire from a conservative activist who says its top officials have improperly schemed with education lobbyists.

For the past two years, high-level political appointees have met weekly with lobbyists representing teachers' unions, school boards, superintendents, and a wide spectrum of school interests. Almost all the participants agree with the Clinton administration's education stances, says a critic who attended recent meetings, which are held most Thursdays at 4 p.m. at the department.

Participants--often led by Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith or by Susan Frost, a top adviser to Secretary Richard W. Riley who formerly was executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group--plotted tactics to defeat Congress' voucher proposals and pass President Clinton's education budget, according to Paul F. Steidler. Mr. Steidler directs the education reform project for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a conservative research group in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Steidler said the sessions violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which bars government officials from holding regular meetings with the general public unless the meetings are publicly advertised and open to anyone who wants to attend.

Mr. Riley's spokesman said the law does not cover meetings such as the ones held in the secretary's conference room.

"These sessions are open to anyone, and they are not structured in such a way that would trigger FACA," said David Frank, Mr. Riley's communications director. Among groups that regularly send representatives to the meetings, he said, are the Council for American Private Education and others that oppose the administration's stance against private school vouchers.

Mr. Steidler acknowledged that he went to the meetings for seven months before publishing a report questioning their legality. Department officials did not deny him the right to attend.

After conservative columnist Robert D. Novak published excerpts of Mr. Steidler's report, other Clinton foes said they intend to crash the party. The Family Research Council, a conservative group headed by a former aide to President Reagan, and a nonprofit seeking vouchers in the District of Columbia plan to attend in the future, Mr. Steidler said.

--DAVID J. HOFF [email protected]

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