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Reagan's Charge To Reorganize Agency Could Mean Merger of Research Arms

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Washington--Although high-ranking officials in the Reagan Administration have yet "to sit down and sort out" precisely how they would like to reorganize the Education Department, they strongly support merging the department's research and statistics-gathering branches, interviews with a number of officials indicated last week.

The concept of consolidating the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Institute of Education "has viability even if nothing else is done with the status of the department," said one official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. Another official, speaking under similar conditions, added that a move to reorganize the department's research and data-gathering functions "would be high on the Administration's agenda."

Study of Federal Role

Speculation about the future of the department heated up earlier this month following President Reagan's selection of William J. Bennett to be his next Secretary of Education. The President ordered Mr. Bennett to conduct a study following his expected confirmation by the Senate outlining "the proper organizational structure and role of the federal government in education." (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1985.)

Mr. Bennett, currently chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has avoided contact with the media since the President's Jan. 10 announcement, and sources close to him have declined to say whether he has formulated any plans regarding the possible restructuring of the department.

The consolidation of the research and statistics agencies was one of several departmental reorganizations recommended last month by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization. It was made in what has come to be known as Mandate for Leadership II, the sequel to the foundation's influential 1981 public-policy blueprint for the Administration. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1984.)

According to one Administration official, the group's latest proposals for the revamping of the federal role in education education enjoy ''broad support" in the White House.

Although Mr. Bennett has not made public his views on the foundation's most recent proposals for education, observers pointed out that he was a contributor to the section of the 1981 book outlining policies for the humanities endowment.

Restructuring Plan

Under the foundation's proposal for restructuring research and data collection in the department, the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Institute of Education, and their parent Office of Educational Research and Improvement would be converted into a single ''Office for Research" headed by one official. Currently, the parent office is headed by a Presidentially appointed assistant secretary, the institute by a Presidentially appointed director, and the center by a "senior executive service" level administrator.

"A lot of people think reorganizing [the offices] would be a wise management thing to do," said one Administration official. He continued, "There's a sense that nie is a separate entity that operates inde3pendently of the department."

A move within the department to examine the possible reorganization of the agencies was undertaken shortly before the President announced Mr. Bennett's nomination. Acting Secretary of Education Gary L. Jones appointed a task force composed of eight department officials to study the issue and recommend whether consolidation was advisable. Donald J. Senese, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement and a member of the eight-member group, said last week that the panel will continue to meet and will present its findings to Mr. Bennett.

Political Motives Alleged

Although the notion of consolidating nces and nie first emerged during the final months of the Carter Administration, some staff members at nie have alleged that the concept has been adopted by conservative supporters of the President as a means by which to strip authority from the institute's director, Manuel J. Justiz, and to gain control of the agency's research agenda.

Mr. Justiz's stewardship of the agency has been criticized in national conservative publications since last summer, when an anonymous group of institute staff members lodged charges of waste, fraud, and abuse against him with the department's inspector general. The director was cleared of the most serious charges, which included the falsification of travel vouchers and the rewarding of employees with cash and civil-service grade increases for covering up illegal activities. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1984.)

As secretary of education, Mr.6Bennett would have broad authority to reorganize the research and data-gathering agencies. Under a section of the 1979 act that created the department, the secretary may "alter, consolidate, or discontinue" nie and nces, provided 90 days' notice is given to the House Education and Labor and Senate Labor and Human Resources Committees.

Focus on N.I.E.

The nie will be the focus of separate inquiries in the committees in coming months. The Senate panel intends to investigate charges of irregularities in the agency's personnel and contracts policies, and both it and the House committee are expected to hold hearings on the institute's upcoming reauthorization.

"This is the 18th year that I've been here, and it seems as if every year someone wants to rearrange the boxes on the organizational chart," said John F. Jennings, majority counsel of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education. "Rearranging boxes is nothing but a waste of federal money that doesn't have much effect on the end product."

But according to another Democratic House committee staff member who asked not to be identified, if the Administration proposes "a meaningful restructuring of the agencies, I think people will listen to it."

"If it's possible to come up with an integrated structure that provided a more efficient delivery of services, that certainly would be an issue we would look at during reauthorization," the staff member said. He warned, however, that any plan that would "politicize" nie's research agenda would be rejected.

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