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Audit Uncovers Few Improprieties In New E.D. Proposal-Review System

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Washington--An audit of the Reagan Administration's use of outside "experts" to review proposals for fiscal 1982 federal grants has found little evidence of improper practice.

The report of the audit, by the General Accounting Office--the investigatory arm of the Congress--was requested by House members as a result of claims by women's groups that the Administration was attempting to exclude them from receiving funds under the $5.7-million Women's Educational Equity Act.

'Field Readers'

The report focused on the non-governmental "field readers" chosen by the Administration to review and rate the quality of proposals for grants under the women's program, the Unsolicited Proposals Program of the National Institute of Education, and the college Talent Search program last year.

Previously, grant proposals--each of which must be reviewed by three outside experts under Education Department regulations--were given to experts chosen by officers of individual federal programs.

Administration officials, in the spring of 1982, changed the practice, recruiting more than 1,000 individuals in an effort to inject "new blood" into the review process. (See Education Week, June 9, 1982.)

'Unqualified' People

Women's groups and some program officers subsequently complained to members of the House Committee on Education and Labor that the Administration permitted "unqualified" people to review proposals in a campaign to prevent liberal groups from receiving funds.

According to the audit report, the charge was at least partially justified regarding the women's program.

Eleven out of the 55 readers for the program had no "commitment" or "expertise" in women's educational equity, the report said.

The report cited as one example a female "whose only experience" was "as a basketball coach in 1942. We did not believe that such service demonstrated expertise," the auditors wrote.

For the National Institute of Education's program, however, the auditors found that, although they were unable to determine the qualifications of 12 percent of the Administration-selected reviewers, 96 percent of the others were judged qualified.

Most of the reviewers for the Talent Search program were also judged to be qualified.

The report also found no evidence of officials using subjective judgment in awarding grants under the women's program in 1982.

Proposals were awarded based on their rank by reviewers, the audit said.

In the institute, however, the report said the acting director, Robert W. Sweet Jr., had used his discretion in awarding grants.

'Proper' Expenditure

According to the report, the acting director rejected highly rated proposals for research into Black English, desegregation, and standardized testing of the handicapped, justifying his decisions based on his opinions as to the "proper" expenditure of federal funds for research.

Regarding the Black English research project, for example, the acting director wrote, "It would be un-wise for the federal government to subsidize studies concerned with the hows and whys of non-standard English speech. Rather, the federal government should subsidize studies that help people to speak standard English."

Subjective Judgments

The auditors noted, however, that in previous years officials of both the women's program and the institute had made subjective judgments in the awarding of grants, rather than simply funding the projects most highly rated by the outside experts.

A spokesman for Representative Carl D. Perkins, the Kentucky Democrat who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, said the committee had no plans to conduct hearings on the report's findings.

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