E.D. Recruiting 1,000 New Readers
Washington--One thousand new educational "experts" have been recruited by the Reagan Administration to review proposals for Education Department (ED) grants and contracts--the result of a program begun earlier this year that is supposed to remove conflict-of-interest and other alleged abuses from the department's grants-making process.
The program--known as the "Field Reader Outreach Program"--has been promoted as a way to expand the pool of people outside of the federal government, commonly known as "field readers," who participate in panels that review and rate the quality of proposals competing for grants and contracts.
Most of the field readers--who, according to federal policy, are expected to have expertise in various areas of education--travel to Washington for up to one week each year to serve on the panels, for which they receive a fee and are reimbursed for travel expenses.
Future Grants Prevented
But critics of the department have charged that, based on proposal-reviewing sessions held this spring, Administration officials are using the program as a way of preventing liberal groups that have successfully competed for grants in the past from receiving future grants.
The controversy centers on two ED programs, the Women's Educational Equity Act and the National Institute of Education. Field readers chosen to review proposals for those programs include not only educators and scholars, but conservative political activists as well, according to sources within and outside the Administration.
Patricia Brockbank, the ED official who administers the field-reader program in the office of management, insisted in an interview that the new readers were needed for reasons that had more to do with efficient management than with partisan politics.
The request for new readers was actually made by employees who operate some of the department's 111 programs, Ms. Brockbank said. Although department policy requires that reviewers may serve only for two-year terms, "there was a continuous repeat of service by reviewers," she said.
Under previous administrations, "every program had its own way of grant- and contract-reading. There was no consistency, no control," she said. "The program officers said that it was a common occurrence to use only a few reviewers. ... A lot of programs received resumes from only one or two selected organizations or constituencies that wanted to review proposals. We wanted a better response from the general thinking of the American people, a cross-section of opinion. After all, this is the taxpayers' money."
"There were also some instances of conflict-of-interest. One that recently came to my attention was a field reader selected to review proposals in a certain program this year and last year who was a former grantee of the program," she said.
The new experts were sought out, through contacts with officials in schools, colleges, state education agencies, and scholarly institutions, by Administration representatives in the department's 10 regional offices and the office of intergovernmental affairs. The management office was selected as a "central collection point" to receive the resumes of those who sought the positions as grant-proposal reviewers, she said.
The resumes were also screened by management officials, "to determine what categories of proposals the applicant might be qualified to judge," according to Ms. Brockbank.
Other sources say that the management-office was looking not only for scholarly credentials, but for political affiliation.
"There seem to be some major changes in the way in which field readers are chosen. People with no expertise in a particular subject, or in education in general, are being asked to be readers," said Bernice R. Sandler, the director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Association of American Colleges.
Other sources, who participated in a proposal-reviewing session for the women's program last month, pointed out that one of the new field readers in that session was Grace Collins, a professor in the department of linguistics at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C.
Reviewing Aid Proposals
Ms. Collins, an employee of the Christian evangelical university whose policies are widely held to be racially discriminatory, was reviewing proposals for grants to aid ethnic minority girls and women, the sources said.
Another source reported that one of the field readers, who was assigned to rate the quality of a proposal to measure states' and school systems' compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, asked of other readers, "What is Title IX?"
Title IX bars sex discrimination against students and school employees who participate in federally funded education programs.
The women's program is considered one of the most controversial federal education programs. It has been continually criticized by "New Right" activists because grants un-der the program have been made to feminist organizations, such as the National Organization for Women (now), the Feminist Press, Working Women, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
"I would be very surprised to see groups like now getting grants with the kind of people who are currently reviewing proposals," said one former recipient of a grant under the women's program.
Similar criticisms have been made against some of the 100 new people chosen to review unsolicited proposals for grants from the National Institute of Education, the research agency of the department. The institute has long been labeled "too liberal" by conservative scholars who say its research has failed to concentrate on methods that improve student achievement.
The institute's group of new readers--who receive proposals in the mail for review, rather than participating in panels at the institute's Washington headquarters--includes persons who list their educational qualifications as "parent activist" or "citizen activist."
Others are scholars and political activists associated with the Heritage Foundation, the conservative policy-research organization; the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon; the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative lobbying organization; and Liberty Baptist College, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Christian political activist and television personality.
"It seems that they are politicizing a process that should be free from politics," said one source, who asked not to be identified. "Field readers should be people who have expertise in the field in which they are reading grant proposals, not people who have an ideological axe to grind," the source said.
Other sources pointed out that one of the most vocal critics of the education grants-making process, Susan Phillips, was recently hired as a full-time consultant to the management office. Ms. Phillips was the director of research for the Conservative Caucus Foundation, a position that has gained her widespread publicity in political circles as an expert on the subject of government grants to liberal causes.
Hired to Examine Process
Ms. Phillips was hired to "help us examine the entire grants and contracts process from A to Z," according to an Administration official.
Ms. Brockbank insisted that only qualified educators and scholars were chosen by the management office as field readers.
"Of the nearly 1,000 readers we chose," she said, "most all had doctoral degrees, and nearly all had master's degrees. We immediately rejected a small number, mostly those who didn't have lots of years of professional experience as teachers, college or university professors, or researchers," she said.
She also pointed out that program officers in the department are not required to include the new readers when they review grant proposals. The management office did require program officers to inform Ms. Brockbank about their decisions regarding the new readers, she said. A memorandum from the management office to program officers asks them to list how many of the new readers were chosen. If some were rejected, program officers must list their reasons for not permitting the new readers to participate in the proposal-reviewing process.
One result of the field-reader program has been the reassignment of the director of the women's program, Leslie Wolfe. An Administration source said that Ms. Wolfe was transferred by Administration officials from her post to a position in the management office in part because she rejected some of the new readers selected to review women's-program grant proposals.
The staff of the women's program had already selected readers for its May proposal-reviewing session when the management office sent the resumes of 150 new readers to Ms. Wolfe, the source said. Ms. Wolfe and her staff selected 44 who were "minimally qualified, and they sent back the rest, saying those people weren't qualified," the source said.
Shortly thereafter, Ms. Wolfe was transferred, and all but one of the original readers she had chosen were told they would not be participating on the panel. When the reviewing session finally took place, "half of the people whose names were rejected as unqualified were on the panel," the source said.
Officials of the research institute also made an effort to ensure that the new readers would participate in the proposal-reviewing process. A source at the institute said program officers there were informed that they must permit at least half of the 100 new readers to review proposals.