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Department Modifies Stance On Diffusion Network Rules

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Washington--Following charges that proposed new rules for the National Diffusion Network could politicize the program, the Education Department has modified some of the most controversial provisions.

The final regulations, published Aug. 14, place certain limits on a new "program significance panel" that would screen curricular projects submitted to the network for possible dissemination. Plans for such a panel have drawn harsh criticism from many lawmakers and educators, who warn that its creation could lead to censorship of instructional programs.

Under the revised rules, a program could be accepted by the network after review by a "program effectiveness panel" analogous to the current review panel. The effectiveness panel, rather than the significance panel, would do the initial screening. Federal funding to aid selected programs would still be contingent on a high score from both panels.

"The significance panel no longer precludes a program from being part of the network," said Ronald P. Preston, a deputy assistant secretary in the office of educational research and improvement, which oversees the n.d.n. "It just makes a judgment, allows us to provide a guide to what is in the program, to suggest appropriate grade levels, to say it is controversial."

In addition, the department has tightened the criteria for review by the significance panel. The regulations state that that panel "will not act as a censor or otherwise interfere with the authority of local school districts to select curricular materials."

The department also withdrew a proposal to permanently fund its school-recognition program through the n.d.n., as well as a rule limiting network grants to six years. However, a new category of grants and funding for a national "private-school facilitator" remain, despite opposition.

The final rules are "minimally better" than the original proposal, said Max McConkey, a spokesman for the National Dissemination Study Group, a professional association of n.d.n. members.

"I think the protest from the field and Capitol Hill had some impact. We're still not happy with it, but this has reduced considerably the impact" of the significance panel, he said.

The department's proposals still face stiff opposition on Capitol Hill, observers noted.

During the debate on the appropriations bill passed by the House last month, Representatives engaged in carefully worded discussion in an effort to establish that the Congress does not intend to fund content-review procedures for the n.d.n. Up until now, programs have been selected only on the basis of "educational effectiveness." Lawmakers are weighing the possibility of including a prohibition on the policy shift in the report that will accompany the final appropriations bill.

Last May, as part of HR 5, its omnibus school-improvement bill, the House voted to block most of the changes planned for the network. The Senate is likely to take similar action next year, according to staff aides.

"At worst, the Administration has a year of grace and then HR 5 will undo" the changes, Mr. McConkey said. "I have pledged to work with [department officials] and objectively assess how it works out."

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