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House Hearing on Diffusion Network Dominated by Ideological

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Washington--Members of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education invited a host of witnesses to Capitol Hill last week to discuss with them the pros and cons of revamping the method by which the National Diffusion Network (ndn) is funded by the federal government.

The House panel members were treated instead to a lengthy and occasionally vituperative debate focusing on the methods used by the ndn to review and approve program materials for nationwide dissemination.

The abrupt and unintended departure from the committee hearing's original topic of discussion was spurred by the recent disclosure that Donald J. Senese, the Education Department's (ed) assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, has ordered the discontinuation of funding for 13 programs that previously had been deemed effective and worthy of funding by the ndn (See Education Week, June 2, 1982.)

That act was characterized during the hearing by Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, as being prompted by "the same shibboleths we have been hearing here, that the federal government has been responsible for imposing secular humanism in the classroom."

Although quite different in terms of their stated objectives, the 13 programs all share to some degree an approach to problem solving "by involving students in the decision-making process," according to one of the program directors. The ndn extended dissemination grants to a total of 84 programs last year.

Mr. Senese informed the directors of the programs in letters dated April 22 that the action against them was being taken because, in his opinion, they "were not in the best interest of the federal government."

Grants Kept Frozen

Officials in four of the 13 programs filed suit in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J. on May 11 in order to block the ed move. Under the terms of a consent decree issued by U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise, the ndn grants for the programs of the four plaintiffs will be kept frozen by ed until the court delivers a ruling on the legality of the proposed cutoff.

On May 28, ed attorneys filed a petition with the court seeking a dismissal of the lawsuit, asking that the judge respond to their request by June 21.

At the House hearing, the most vocal critic of current ndn program-review techniques was Onalee McGraw, chief educational consultant to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative public-policy research organization based in Washington. Ms. McGraw testified on her own behalf before the House panel.

"It has been argued that the [review] process," which is conducted by a group of federal education officials known as the Joint Dissemination Review Panel (jdrp), "is the protection and the guarantee that the projects will be 'exemplary,"' Ms. McGraw said.

After having attended two meetings of the jdrp earlier this year, she said, she could not help but conclude that "the review process is not, from what I can gather, a quality-review process at all.

"The process is simply a process," Ms. McGraw explained. "No criteria of appropriateness of subject matter, educational priorities, or philosophical foundations are considered by the jdrp"

To support her contention, Ms. McGraw cited the jdrp's approval last year of a course developed by a school district in New York in which students analyze ethical problems including such issues as wives leaving their husbands in favor of careers, telling the truth all of the time, and "whether the public good calls for some persons, including unborn children and handicapped persons, to be killed or allowed to die.''

"It is not the students who need a course in ethical decision making but the developers of the course," Ms. McGraw said. "It is not the students who need values clarification but the persons in authority who persist in saying that such projects should be funded."

Ms. McGraw also argued that it is inappropriate for the federal government to endorse such controversial curriculum materials for use in school districts around the country.

Supporters of the ndn argue that "the federal government is really not 'controlling' what local schools do in the area of content and curriculum" by approving certain programs for federal dissemination grants, Ms. McGraw said. But the jdrp "stamp of approval" itself repudiates the principle that issues of curriculum are to be decided by local school boards "responsible in their decisions to the deliberate sense of the community they represent," she added.

During questioning, however, Representative Ford alleged that Ms. McGraw and her supporters were not opposed to the ndn's approving programs that focus on values clarification so much as they were opposed to the approval of programs that deal with values that conservative groups oppose.

"On one hand you say that you support prayer in public schools, but on the other you say that the federal government has no right to advocate values clarification," he said. "You're saying that you are against the teaching of values in the classroom, but I think that if the values being taught were those of the King James Version of the Bible, that would be O.K."

"I would be just as concerned to see the federal government fund my own pet projects as I would be to see it fund someone else's," Ms. McGraw responded.

Revise Funding Method

Later in the hearing, the subcommittee members and witnesses returned to a discussion of their original topic of the day--namely, HR 5818, a bill sponsored by Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, that would revise the method by which the ndn receives its federal funding.

Financial problems are nothing new to the eight-year-old federal program. The ndn was created in 974 under the aegis of Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1974 "in order to capitalize on federal investments of billions of dollars between 1965 and 1974 in research, development, and demonstration programs which were not being used outside districts where they had first emerged," according to Lee E. Wickline, director of the ndn

In the fiscal years 1974 and 1975, its first two years of operation, the ndn received federal appropriations of $9.1 million and $8.4 million, respectively. But in 1976, the section of Title III under which the ndn was funded was repealed by the Congress, leaving it with no new federal monies and little hope for survival.

"The fascinating thing about that entire episode is that we were quite successful in meeting our objectives in both 1974 and 1975," Mr. Wickline said in an interview before the hearing.

"The people at the local level who received ndn grants believed in what they were doing and were able to obtain support from a variety of other sources that year," he said.

In 1977, funding for the ndn was reauthorized by the Congress under Section 422(a) of the General Education Provisions Act (gepa). The ndn operated under gepa from 1977 until last summer, when its authorization was shifted once again, this time to Chapter II, better known as the State Block Grant, of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ecia).

According to David M. McCon-key, a member of the National Dissemination Study Group who testified at the hearing, the ndn is authorized under Chapter II as a program to be funded by means of the Secretary of Education's discretionary fund.

Six percent of the monies appropriated for Chapter II is reserved by the Secretary for this fund, part of which he is to use to finance ndn activities. In fiscal 1982, the ndn received approximately $10.3 million from this fund.

But due to the nature of the Secretary's discretionary fund, Mr. McConkey pointed out, funding for the ndn is limited by the amount appropriated for Chapter II.

Under current law, he said, for every additional dollar that that Congress might want to appropriate to the ndn, an additional $50 would have to be appropriated for Chapter II.

Representative Kildee's bill, Mr. McConkey explained, would keep the ndn as part of the Secretary's discretionary portion of Chapter II. However, if the Congress should decide that the funding level under Chapter II in a given year is insufficient to meet the ndn's needs, a line item would be available to fund the ndn at whatever level the Congress determines to be appropriate.

Furthermore, Mr. McConkey said, the listing of ndn in ecia marked the first time that the program was specifically named in federal law.

"At the same time, no description or purpose was given, so the program must be carried out with no legal guidelines," he added. "This situation places the Secretary in the awkward position of being required to carry out a program with no indication in the law indicating the manner in which its work is to be carried out, or whether it could be changed."

Currently, the ndn is suffering "from a lack of proper legislative authority," Mr. McConkey said. "[Assistant Secretary Senese] is treating the program as being within his complete discretion. The approval of projects has been subject to his whim. We are sure that, if departmental officials are aware that the Congress takes a particular interest in the ndn, they will be less likely to be capricious regarding its administration."

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