The Bush administration paid a prominent commentator to promote the No Child Left Behind (search) schools law to fellow blacks and to give the education secretary media time, records show.

A company run by Armstrong Williams (search), the syndicated commentator, was paid $240,000 by the Education Department. The goal was to deliver positive messages about Bush's education overhaul, using Williams' broad reach with minorities.

The deal, which drew a fast reuke from Democrats on Capitol Hill, is the latest to put the department on the defensive for the way it has promoted Bush's signature domestic policy.

The contract required Williams' company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV ads that feature one-minute "reads" by Education Secretary Rod Paige (search). The deal also allowed Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.

Williams, one of the leading black conservative voices in the country, was also to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to talk about No Child Left Behind.

The law, a centerpiece of President Bush's domestic agenda, aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children, with penalties for many schools that don't make progress.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the decisions on the practice were made by the Education Department. He did not directly answer when asked whether the White House approved of the practice, saying it was a department matter.

The Education Department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures." The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, the department said.

Williams called criticism of his relationship with the department "legitimate."

"It's a fine line," he told The Associated Press on Friday. "Even though I'm not a journalist — I'm a commentator — I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it."

Three Democratic senators — Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Harry Reid of Nevada — wrote Bush Friday to demand he recover the money paid to Armstrong. The lawmakers contended that "the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy."

Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, asked for an inspector general investigation into whether the deal with legal and ethical. He and other Democrats also wrote Bush to call for an end to "covert propaganda."

The department's contract with Williams, through the public relations firm Ketchum, dates to 2003 and 2004. It follows another recent flap about the agency's publicity efforts.

The Bush administration has promoted No Child Left Behind with a video that comes across as a news story but fails to make clear the reporter involved was paid with taxpayer money. It has also has paid for rankings of newspaper coverage of the law, with points awarded for stories that say Bush and the Republican Party are strong on education. The Government Accountability Office, Congress' auditing arm, is investigating those spending decisions.

The GAO has twice ruled that the Bush administration's use of prepackaged videos — to promote federal drug policy and a new Medicare law — is "covert propaganda" because the videos do not make clear to the public that the government produced the promotional news.

"There is no defense for using taxpayer dollars to pay journalists for 'fake news' and favorable coverage of a federal program," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that has tracked the department's spending.

Information about the contract with Williams was first reported by USA Today.