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N.I.E.'s 'Agenda' Signals Closing of Labs and Centers

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Washington--An internal National Institute of Education (nie) document outlining the agency's agenda for the fiscal year 1984 appears to confirm a controversial decision by Edward Curran, the agency's new director, to end the contracts of 17 federally supported regional education laboratories and research centers one year early.

The "FY 1984 Research Plan" outlines proposed topics for $39-million-worth of new research that the institute will support beginning in October of next year. It was circulated among nie officials last week.

'Research Plan'

According to sources within nie, the Education Department's nine-year-old research arm, the circulation of the "research plan" within nie also represents a move by Mr. Curran to implement a research agenda he proposed in a set of planning guidelines that were distributed to the agency's staff earlier this year.

Those plans outlined two primary research themes, "freedom"--including "consumer sovereignty" for parents and the relief for educators from "excessive" state and federal regulations--and "excellence"--including an emphasis on high student achievement, rather than on minimum competence.

The 1984 research plan is consistent with these themes and would support work on subjects such as tuition tax credits and vouchers; the qualitative effects of school finance-equalization efforts on student academic achievement; the educational effects of regulations and judicial requirements on instructional decisions in the classroom; home schooling; and the effects of Title I and P.L. 94-142 (the special-education law) on the academic achievement of students.

At the same time Mr. Curran is moving to reshape nie policy, he is being criticized by the educational research community and the National Council on Educational Research--the presidentially appointed body that has statutory authority to set nie policy--for acting arbitrarily in deciding the future direction of the agency.

The 1984 research plan makes no reference to the 17 research institutions.

Support Phased Out

It is thus based on the assumption that federal support for the regional laboratories and centers will be phased out by that date. In fact, the agenda detailed in the document will be financed largely by the $28 million currently allocated to the laboratories and centers on a non-competitive basis.

The educational-research community has strongly opposed Mr. Curran's proposed early termination of nie's contracts with the re-search institutions, which was announced in letters from Mr. Curran to the directors of each of the laboratories and centers late last month. (See Education Week, March 31.)

After Mr. Curran announced his plan concerning the laboratories and centers, representatives of the leading educational-research organization, the 16,000-member American Educational Research Association (aera), presented the nie director with an alternative timetable that would allow the laboratories and centers to complete their current contracts--which run through the fall of 1984 for 15 of the institutions and through the fall of 1985 for two others--before they enter the competition for future contracts.

The "research plan" suggests that Mr. Curran has rejected the aera's proposal. In an interview last week, Mr. Curran said he does not plan to "deviate from [his] original course" of terminating the contracts of the laboratories and centers early and ending the longstanding federal policy of making long-term noncompetitive grants and contracts to the 17 institutions.

Research Jeopardized

Officials of the centers and laboratories, who contend that they have five-year contracts with nie and are prepared to go to court over the issue, have asserted that Mr. Curran's proposal jeopardizes the type of "programmatic" educational research they do--that is, research on a single topic by a large number of people over an extended period of time.

Mr. Curran said last week that some of the grants and contracts awarded under the 1984 research plan would "clearly" be for more than one year.

nie plans to announce the competition for the grants and contracts under the 1984 plan by this fall.

Mr. Curran declined last week to say whether he had instructed the nie staff to begin implementing the 1984 research plan, which is marked "draft."

However, sources in nie said the circulation of the research plan within the agency does represent a move by Mr. Curran to implement a research agenda he first proposed in the set of planning guidelines that were distributed to the agency's staff earlier this year.

These sources said steps will be taken to assign nie staff to write requests for specific grant and contract proposals based on the topics included in the 1984 research plan.

However, the funds to pay for the projects to be included in the 1984 plan will not be available if Mr. Curran fails in his attempt to terminate the nie contracts with the 17 laboratories and centers in 1983.

Mr. Curran would not comment on the specifics of the 1984 research plan.

Director Criticized

The nie director, who was appointed by President Reagan last fall, has been criticized by the National Council on Educational Research, a 15-member group of presidentially appointed educators who since 1973 have had statutory authority to set nie policy, for failing to consult with them on policy changes.

In a letter to Mr. Curran on Feb. 18, the council's chairman, former U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe II wrote that "... several Council members have phoned me to express concern about potentially large shifts of direction in the program of NIE without adequate review by the Council."

"Whatever is done," Mr. Howe wrote, "it seems to me important to handle long-term planning for the use of education research funds made available by the Congress in a fuller and more open fashion. ..."

Mr. Howe said last week that he then sent a second letter to Mr. Curran as a "reminder" of the council's concern that it be included more fully in discussions of nie's future. After not receiving a reply from Mr. Curran to his second letter, Mr. Howe said he sent a telegram outlin-ing his concerns to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

Mr. Howe said that Mr. Curran, who also received a copy of the telegram to Secretary Bell, last week agreed to meet with the council and discuss the 1984 research plan.

Mr. Curran declined to comment on the letter from Mr. Howe.

Mr. Howe also said he had not seen a copy of the 1984 plan.

All the current members of the council, who hold three-year terms, were appointed by President Carter.

William Cooley, president of aera, said his organization has been trying unsuccessfully to get Mr. Curran to "open up the process" of deciding nie's future research plans. "It would be useful to have more outside expertise involved," he added.

Mr. Cooley had seen the 1984 research plan last week. He called it a "shopping list" of interesting policy questions that "will take a whole lot of work to turn into researchable topics."

"The emphasis is on short-term efforts that cannot possibly answer the large questions that are asked," he added.

Mr. Curran said that the 1984 research plan was based on proposals from the nie staff and that it is "not a set of plans being imposed on the institution" by the Reagan Administration.

He also said that the aera and the rest of the research community were asked to offer suggestions for research topics several months ago.

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