Virginia Education Secretary James W. Dyke has been known to quote Yogi Berra's adage that the key to life is "not to make the wrong mistake," but some are beginning to wonder if Dyke isn't flirting with the wrong mistake himself just by serving in Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's cabinet.

If, as expected, Wilder is forced by the state's economic slump to make heavy cuts in education spending, will Fairfax County's Dyke take the heat?

Washington lawyer Vincent Cohen, a longtime friend, called Dyke "an excellent politician" and compared him to Ron Brown, the Democratic National Committee chairman. "These guys manage to walk through the thicket and still have everybody saying, 'He's a great guy,' " Cohen said.

Great guy or not, "with the kind of crunch we're in," budget cutting is going to "have an impact on Dyke's performance," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), a member of the House of Delegates education committee and a retired teacher.

Dyke -- whose responsibilities include making policy and targeting state aid for educational endeavors from kindergarten through doctoral programs -- almost seems to welcome adversity. "It forces you to be more creative when your resources are not as generous," he said in a recent interview. "The Chinese character for crisis is the same for opportunity. It's a matter of priorities, reallocation."

Words like that do not soothe the education constituency. "Reallocation? What does that mean?" asks Madeline I. Wade, president of the Virginia Education Asociation, the state's largest teachers' union. Dyke, she said, "has not explained to me what reallocation means. We don't have masses of state money to move around."

Regardless of such concerns and questions about what lies ahead, so far Dyke has received good reviews for his first six months in the job.

"Very able," "forceful," "well-regarded in the legislature," "nice, easy style that inspires confidence," are some of the terms used to describe the 43-year-old lawyer and former member of the state School Board. There, he fought hard for required sex education in public schools and tougher academic standards for teachers.

In an interview in his Richmond office, Dyke painted his ideas for future educational improvements in broad strokes with an eye for the bottom line. He paused often to point out that some of his favorite remedies to hard times -- such as creating "partnerships with business" and using community colleges to beef up course offerings in local high schools -- "do not put another dollar on the table."

Dyke has said he will try to protect education funds from heavy cuts, but 35 percent of the state's budget goes to education, including $2.3 billion for local public schools.

"State aid would be one of the last options" for cutting, he said recently. "But everything is on the table. So many other things spin off education -- economic development, future taxation, etc."

Money is at the heart of every major issues Dyke faces, including:

The threat by rural school districts to sue to correct what they see as state funding formulas that favor large systems and hurt them.

How to make good on underfunded plans by the 1989 legislature to create a public preschool program for 17,000 4-year-olds deemed "at risk" because of poverty or other family circumstances.

What to do about a proposed accountability program that would rate school performance by locality.

How to narrow a stubborn gap in academic performance between white and minority students.

Then there is higher education, where Dyke said he will be measuring and funding the state's universities based on how each is "looking ahead, being innovative."

"Who's productive, who's moving into the 21st century?" he asked. "Budget decisions will be based on those considerations," not simply on enrollment figures as in the past.

High on his list of priorities in higher education is affirmative action. This summer the Wilder administration asked all 15 institutions to submit four-year plans for attracting and keeping more minority students and faculty.

Dyke acknowledged that black faculty are an increasingly sought-after and expensive commodity in the higher education job market now, but said their hiring should not swell university budgets, which are being constricted by Wilder.

"I'm trying to give institutions latitude in how they spend their money, but I think they can look at redistributing funds," said Dyke, who himself is still a visiting professor at the University of Virginia Law School.

After racial incidents on several of Virginia's public campuses and a Carnegie Foundation report sharply critical of the racial climate and use of drugs and alcohol on many campuses, Dyke has ordered the state's college and university presidents to submit plans in October for creating "communities of civility."

"It was time for someone to stand up. We couldn't wait for it to get out of hand," Dyke said.

That list of challenges is accompanied by an increasing perception that Dyke's stock in the administration is rising. Dyke will not characterize himself as a Wilder insider, but said he feels "pretty close to Wilder at this time. I feel pretty comfortable in coming in and just sort of giving him my advice."

Dyke is one of two current cabinet members to share Wilder's law school alma mater, Howard University. A 1968 graduate of Howard, Dyke received his law degree cum laude in 1971 from the university.

While Wilder staked out his career in Virginia politics and a Richmond law practice, Dyke built his by working the legal fast track -- clerking for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and then working for established firms, such as Covington and Burling, and Sidley and Austin. He is on leave from a partnership in Virginia's largest firm, Hunton and Williams.

Dyke cut his political teeth working on Clifford Alexander's unsuccessful 1974 campaign for D.C. mayor. Later he did a four-year stint as domestic policy adviser to Vice President Walter F. Mondale.

The governor and the secretary first got to know each other when Dyke was working with Mondale and doing some work for Democratic candidates in Virginia. Later, when Wilder was running for lieutenant governor in 1985, "we spent time together," according to Dyke. "We'd talk about issues, sometimes in the educational arena."

Dyke's entre to official Richmond came in 1985, when Gov. Charles S. Robb appointed him to the state School Board.

Dyke continued his association with Wilder, working hard with his 1989 campaign adviser Mark Warner and his finance chairman Robb Shinn on fund-raising in Northern Virginia. Dyke himself gave $2,450 to the gubernatorial campaign, according to the State Board of Elections.

After Wilder's election, Dyke, his wife and their three daughters, ages 8, 9, and 10, had just settled into a new Fairfax home -- a two-hour commute from Richmond -- when Wilder asked him to be education secretary.

"He had a pretty definite commitment to education, and even though I had a family commitment, I thought I needed to accept if he thought I could make a contribution," Dyke said.

Dyke says he has no political plans at the moment. "I'm just trying to be the best secretary of education I can right now."