Bias Charged in Denial of Aid to History Course
Washington--An official in the Education Department's research branch has manipulated established review processes to block funds to disseminate a curriculum on the Holocaust that offends her conservative beliefs, according to an advocacy group and department employees.
Shirley Curry, director of the recognition division in the office of educational research and improvement, has "abused her discretion in service to her rigid ideology," charged Max McConkey, head of the National Dissemination Study Group, an organization representing members of the National Diffusion Network.
Mr. McConkey and others familiar with the program concede, however, that Ms. Curry broke no laws by denying funds for the curriculum. Ms. Curry, whose office oversees the ndn program, did not return telephone calls last week.
The ndn makes exemplary instructional programs on a variety of subjects available to school districts. The project in question is "Facing History and Ourselves," a curriculum dealing with the persecution of Jews during World War II that has been included in the network for many years.
A storm of controversy erupted last year when "Facing History" was first denied dissemination funding, which is granted to a relatively small number of projects selected for ndn recognition. (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1987.)
It had been given low marks by review panelists, who Mr. McConkey and others charged were selected by conservatives in the department to reflect their political biases.
Comments by one reviewer that the program failed to present the views of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan received national media attention, and some department officials later admitted that "Facing History" had not received a fair review.
Because of the controversy, the department was forced to abandon a "program significance panel" it had planned to add to the ndn review process to screen programs for "appropriateness." Critics alleged that the second review panel was intended to censor programs for political reasons. (See Education Week, May 11, 1988.)
The developers of the "Facing History" curriculum reapplied for ndn funding this year and received high marks from reviewers, according to oeri sources.
However, Mr. McConkey and oeri employees familiar with the ndn who requested anonymity said Ms. Curry was determined to prevent the program from receiving federal funding.
O.eri sources said Ms. Curry had told employees that she would ensure the program would not be funded because the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly dislikes it. Ms. Curry is said to have strong ties to Mrs. Schlafly and her organization, the Eagle Forum.
In letters to department officials last year, Ms. Schlafly said the ''Facing History" curriculum involved "psychological manipulation, induced behavioral change, and privacy-invading treatment."
Although ndn dissemination awards have not yet been announced, oeri sources confirmed that "Facing History" will be bypassed for funding in favor of programs that had received lower review scores. They also said that ndn staff members had strongly recommended that the program be funded.
The sources said Ms. Curry decided to fund no projects in the8"History, Geography, and Civics" category in which the disputed project had applied solely to deny it a grant.
The oeri employees also agreed with Mr. McConkey's assertion that a decision to deny funding to several other entire categories was designed to mask Ms. Curry's decision regarding "Facing History."
In addition, the sources said, Ms. Curry's decision not to provide awards in the "Schoolwide and Districtwide Improvement" category was intended to block funding for "Project climb," whose director, Barbara Brenner, was active in opposing the program-significance panel.
Mr. McConkey contended that Ms. Curry asked William Kristol, then-staff director to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, to intervene on her behalf when two of her superiors--Milton Goldberg, director of the programs for improvement of practice, and Assistant Secretary Chester E. Finn--told her they could not, or would not, prevent "Facing History" from being funded.
Both Mr. Finn and Mr. Goldberg declined to comment.
Another superior, Ronald P. Preston, who resigned this summer as oeri's deputy assistant secretary for policy and planning, confirmed that he had not been consulted, and said Mr. Goldberg had not been consulted either.
"I can tell you this much: it was handled ultimately by Dr. Finn, who signed the papers," Mr. Preston said.
Mr. Kristol, who left the department this summer to manage a friend's campaign for the Senate, said he knew of Ms. Curry's decision and may have discussed it with her, but "didn't do anything in the sense of calling people or getting strings pulled."
He said Ms. Curry decided not to fund programs in the history category because there were only two applicants. He also said the category is "intrinsically controversial," and that "other areas were more unambiguously deserving of our support."
O.eri employees said Ms. Curry's actions are legal, because the announcements inviting awards carry a disclaimer noting that the department may not fund all the projects it has money for and may not fund projects in all categories.
"Everything they did was legal," said Mr. Preston, who said he was asked to resign, but not over the ndn controversies. "I would have walked out for different reasons if that were not the case."
However, the oeri sources said, the department's flexibility in awarding ndn grants was intended to ensure that all awards do not go to a few categories that have many high-scoring entries, and that low-quality projects are not funded in a year when applications are substandard.
Entire categories are typically denied funding only when no applicant is rated highly enough, the sources said.
"Even if projects get high scores, you don't necessarily have to fund them, but it seems that authority is being used improperly," one source said. "I'm torn, because this is a discretionary program and not an entitlement. But in this case, what's being done is not fair and it's not right."
Congressional aides who are concerned about the ndn program agreed with Mr. McConkey and the oeri sources that Ms. Curry's decision would be difficult to reverse, because she has broken no law.
"Shirley's not stupid," an oeri employee said. "That's why nobody has been able to stop her."
Several oeri sources also said Ms. Curry is trying to leave a more permanent imprint on the ndn by replacing its head, Lee Wickline, a veteran civil servant, with someone who supports her views. Mr. Wickline could not be reached for comment.