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Network-Panel Compromise Ends Agency's Embarrassing Episode

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WASHINGTON--Last fall, Education Department officials maintained that they would go ahead with controversial plans to have a "program-significance panel'' review projects of the National Diffusion Network for their "appropriateness.''

But the NDN language included in the omnibus reauthorization bill recently signed into law--language prepared with the cooperation of the department--prohibits the review, which critics had said was a move to censor programs for political reasons. (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1987.)

Conceded on Reviews

Unlike prior Congressional proposals, however, the NDN section of the legislation does not tell the department what it cannot do, but instead establishes guidelines for the program. The bill also includes some of the changes the department had wanted to make in the network.

For its part, the department agreed to drop the program-significance panel immediately and base 1988 awards on a review that would not consider appropriateness. Those grants will be awarded soon, according to department spokesmen.

"They caved in because they knew they were going to lose,'' said Max McConkey, executive director of the National Dissemination Study Group, a professional association of NDN members that aggressively fought the department's proposals.

"Recognizing the handwriting on the wall, they saw that they needed to come out of this thing not appearing to have the Administration's wrist slapped,'' he said.

'Get It Out of the Papers'

A Congressional aide involved in the NDN issue agreed with Mr. McConkey that the department wanted to avoid embarrassment. He added that top department officials wanted to settle the issue quietly because of adverse publicity generated by news reports of controversial comments made by a reviewer during a trial run of the process.

The reviewer criticized "Facing History and Ourselves,'' an educational program focusing on the Holocaust, for excluding the viewpoints of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Other reviewers complained that the program was offensive to fundamentalist Christians, and was "anti-war and anti-hunting.''

"I think people in the Secretary's office said, 'Get this thing out of the papers,''' the Congressional aide said.

Ronald P. Preston, deputy assistant secretary for policy and planning in the office of educational research and improvement, acknowledged that the department wanted to avoid further embarrassment.

"Certain people in the Secretary's office wanted it fixed, but we here on the program level wanted it fixed, too,'' said Mr. Preston, who spearheaded the department's lobbying efforts on the issue. "'Programs unfair to Nazis'--we in the trenches didn't like seeing that in the news.''

Said Not a Capitulation

Mr. Preston also said the decision to suspend the significance panel immediately was motivated by concern for the program.

"We could have been well on the way to implementing this, [but] we would have had to stop in midcourse,'' he said. "It's not what you call good government.''

Mr. Preston said the department's change of position was not a capitulation. Although the panel was dropped, he said, the new law provides that applicant programs be reviewed for accuracy and for the adequacy of their dissemination plans.

Previously, he said, programs were reviewed only for educational "effectiveness,'' a review that looked only at whether they taught students the material efficiently.

Mr. Preston noted that the department had previously agreed to drop "appropriateness'' as an issue to be addressed by the significance panel, which was to review applications for funding submitted by developers whose programs had already been accepted into the network based on review by the "Program Effectiveness Panel.''

"This took care of everyone's concerns,'' he said. "It's a political year, and it's always fun to say, 'They were doing this funny thing and we came in and beat them.'''

The Congressional conferees also agreed with department proposals to hire a private-school facilitator to increase such schools' use of the NDN, and to allow limited funding of cooperative dissemination efforts with organizations such as the National Geographic Society, ideas Mr. McConkey's group had opposed.

'Positive' Provision

While the Congressional aide discounted the department's influence on most of the NDN decisions, he credited Mr. Preston with persuading staff members to write the provision in a positive way, rather than telling the department, "Thou shalt not.'' Aides agreed that positive language is harder to circumvent, he said.

"There's always something a half-step removed from what you want to avoid,'' the aide said.

Although it does not address all his concerns, Mr. McConkey said he was pleased with the legislation, and particularly a provision requiring the department to consult with NDN practitioners when drafting new regulations, which will include specific criteria for judging applications.

"We hope there will be a more collaborative process,'' he said.

Mr. McConkey also said he hoped that the attention the controversy had brought to the network would result in funding increases.

"One nice thing is that the Congress has awakened to the fact that NDN is the most workable dissemination program in the Department of Education,'' he said. "They will [now] be assuming that if you are going to spend money to develop programs, the successful ones ought to get into NDN, because that's the way to go.''

Mr. McConkey asked appropriators last week to hike the network's budget to $30 million. Its fiscal 1988 budget is $10.24 million, as compared with $14 million in 1979, he said. The Education Department has proposed spending $10.2 million, but the reauthorization bill set a $11.2-million minimum.

For Mr. Preston, who said the significance panel was his idea, the legislation represents a relatively favorable resolution of an embarrassing episode.

"We never intended a censorship board, we never intended all these terrible things we were accused of,'' he said, adding that the controversial reviewer comments on "Facing History'' were "simply unconscionable.''

Ironically, Mr. Preston said, the department could have accomplished its original objective without changing the NDN regulations at all. The original regulations called for review panelists to consider the accuracy and "social fairness'' of applicant programs, he said, although this did not occur in practice. Thus, the department could merely have enforced those rules.

"I guess the joke's on me,'' Mr. Preston said.

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