There's a new look to American Education, the monthly magazine of the Education Department.

And while top officials say it's just a move to make the publication more interesting, some members of the public affairs staff see it as a conspiracy to put the magazine into the hands of the right wing.

The mastermind of the redesign, according to leaked memos, is Marvin Liebman, a 58-year-old drum-beater for conservative causes. During his colorful career, Liebman has been a member of the youth arm of the Communist Party, a member of Menachem Begin's Irgun underground and an opponent of China's admission to the United Nations.

He swept through the department last fall, offering at one point to turn the publication's pages over to two conservative think tanks. On Nov. 9, for instance, he wrote Dennis Doyle of the American Enterprise Institute and Onalee McGraw of the Heritage Foundation that the March issue of the magazine would "be devoted exclusively to whatever you two decide."

The 58-year-old Liebman, who left his first government post earlier this month to become head publicist for the National Endowment for the Arts, worked at Education for four months as a $51,115-a-year consultant to Anne Graham, assistant secretary for legislation and public affairs.

Liebman's ambitious plans for the magazine apparently didn't get very far, although the January/February issue does contain several articles suggested by Doyle and McGraw.

AEI's Doyle recalls that Liebman "was a bit of an enthusiast. He wanted us to take over control and direction of the magazine. But we thought it was inappropriate." McGraw said she made some suggestions, but added: "To tell the truth, I don't read the magazine."

John Roberts, Graham's publications chief, said, "Marvin wasn't out in left field. Right field, maybe."

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and Graham deny that they were trying to move the magazine to the right. Rather, they said, they were just trying to liven it up with more intellectually stimulating topics.

Recent issues, for instance, have featured articles on the Cardozo High School marching band and quilting for fifth graders. The new issue includes the likes of "What Are the Courts Doing to Our Children?" and "The Revival of Moral Education."

"I wanted to make American Education worth the paper it's printed on," Graham said. She said its contents "will not be limited to any one group."

Liebman said that he finally gave up his efforts because the career bureaucrats at the department refused to go along. "It became a one-shot deal," he said. "They just wouldn't do it."

His campaign began in late October when he sent a memo to the staff, saying the January/February issue of the magazine would "be devoted to 'conservative' views on education."

In another memo the same day on "broadcasting the administration's views," he proposed that "surrogates" from conservative backgrounds be used to help.

Liebman said in a recent phone interview that he doesn't even recall a Dec. 2 memo in which he reported that his outside helpers, Doyle, McGraw, and Larry Uzell of the National Institute of Education, recommended that American Education include an article about the Legal Services Corp. written by Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio).

Liebman said he didn't know why that article would have been of interest to the magazine's subscribers. Doyle said he thought Uzell, who used to work for Ashbrook, suggested it. It is not scheduled at this time.

Meanwhile, 10,000 paying subscribers still are waiting for the January/February issue of the 17-year-old magazine.

In a press release last month announcing that the magazine would be changed, Bell said the department "seeks a stimulating exploration of ideas for achieving excellence in education." In a recent phone interview, he said he didn't even know who Liebman was. Bell said he'd heard complaints before that the magazine's contents were "like pablum," but he insisted he hadn't approved any one-sided catalog of views for it.

Liebman said he switched his allegiances from left- to right-wing causes because "life happened--I grew up." His conservative clients included the Committee of One Million, which fought the admission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations, and the American-Chilean Council, which was charged with civil fraud by the Justice Department in 1978 for being funded by the Pinochet regime. Liebman said he registered, under protest, as a foreign agent for Chile.

Now after his stint at Education, his first dealings with the government bureaucracy, he said he's ready to relax and be "artsy-craftsy."

"There wasn't any right-wing plot to take over the magazine," he said. "It's so boring anyway . . . . What would you do with it? It puts its readers to sleep. I wanted to give them something to chew on."