You can’t say I wasn’t warned.

In the run-up to the presidential elections, several benighted readers mistook my fair and balanced commentary on the No Child Left Behind Act for alleged Bush bashing.

“When President Bush wins this election,” one growled, “you’re going to be in big trouble, buster!”

Misguided perhaps but prescient was his ominous prediction. Washington still was cleaning up after the $40-million inaugural extravaganza (talk about Bush bashes!), and already I was in big trouble.

No FBI agents were pounding on my door, I’m relieved to say. (The FBI probably was far too busy investigating the $170 million it apparently wasted on a brand-new computer system that looks to be obsolete upon arrival.)

No, my trouble was far more serious. It all started when USA Today broke that story about how conservative commentator Armstrong Williams received nearly a quarter of a million dollars for promoting the No Child Left Behind Act with praise in his newspaper columns and television appearances, advocacy with America’s Black Forum, and advertising on his own television show.

Suddenly, I was skating on thin ice.

Wife: “Where’s ours?”

Me: “Huh? What? I didn’t do it.”

Wife: “You told me you were an education journalist. What did you do with all the money?”

Me: “Aw, come on, honey, you know we education journalists don’t make any money.”

Wife: “Yes, that’s what you’ve always told me, but now I find out the Department of Education has been paying commentators a quarter of a million dollars to praise the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Me: “Yeah, but I haven’t been that enthusiastic about it.”

Wife: “Oh, so now you’re going to tell me you got a lousy score on ED’s rating of articles by education journalists based on what they write about the No Child Left Behind Act? You got no money, and you didn’t even get a good rating from Secretary Paige’s PR firm? My mother told me this would happen if I married you.”

Me: “Hey, the article that ED’s PR firm ranked Number One was written by none other than Rod Paige himself. How fair is that?”

Wife: “So, you did get a lousy score?”

Me: “I don’t know. I haven’t seen the ratings–those are kept secret, because of national security, I guess.”

Wife: “Look, the Department of Education paid more than $1 million to that Ketchum PR outfit to evaluate education reporters, put out faux news videos, and pay pundits to say nice things about NCLB. Do you mean to say you didn’t get any of that money at all?”

Me: “But I’m not a pundit.”

Wife: “You can say that again. But are you actually telling me that they paid Armstrong Williams $241,000, and you didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt?”

Me: “‘Fraid so. But look, maybe it’s not too late. I could call ED and offer to say half a dozen nice things for only $150,000.”

Wife: “Oh, forget about it. You got a lousy score on ED’s PR rating. And besides, if you didn’t get your money when they were handing it out the first time, you just blew it. Margaret Spellings is going to be running things at ED from now on. And a woman is never going to spend taxpayer’s money on guys like you.”

And so–as often happens at our house–my better half got the better of this discussion. But I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of Armstrong Williams, Ketchum PR, and those fake news reports.

As all of this month’s Front Page stories (each one written in the grand tradition by a woefully underpaid education journalist) clearly illustrate, ED has a major role in education nowadays. The very agency that Reagan Republicans once sought to dismantle now has insinuated itself into ever-more aspects of school and college life. And that alone should be enough to keep the spotlight on ED’s activities.

But if that doesn’t do it, the matter also is the subject of several federal probes. The Federal Communications Commission has launched an investigation into whether the Armstrong Williams deal amounts to illegal “payola,” a term originated in the 1950s to describe record-company payoffs to radio stations for playing certain songs. The Government Accountability Office is investigating, too. And there’s even a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers demanding that the Bush Administration make public a complete list of all the journalists and commentators it has been paying off.

I do hope all the names come out. And if they do, you’ll read them here. On that you may rely.

It might be the only way I’ll ever convince my wife that I haven’t been holding out on her.