Bingaman Seeks Toehold in Education-Policy Arena
Washington--The Congress's governmental affairs committees have often been used by their leaders as a position from which to stick a finger into virtually any pie that appeared appetizing.
For the chairman of the brand-new Senate Subcommittee on Government Information and Regulation, the education pie is worth a taste.
The chairman, Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, has held two hearings in recent weeks on the state of educational data collection, and he said in an interview last week that he may push for legislation to expand the National Assessment of Educational Progress to allow more detailed comparisons.
"What we are trying to do through these hearings is to identify the capability we have now to assess educational performance, and lay out a plan for getting from here to there," he said. "We're trying to determine what we need to pursue and what direction legislation needs to take."
Mr. Bingaman sponsored a new literacy program for limited-English-proficient adults that made it into last year's omnibus education law, but he has not been particularly active on education issues. Nor has the governmental affairs committee.
Both Mr. Bingaman and the full committee's chairman, Senator John Glenn, Democrat of Ohio, are known primarily for their work on defense issues.
But Mr. Bingaman said he had decided he wanted to address the issue of education data before President Bush's education summit with the nation's governors, where the need to expand assessment was a theme.
"We identified the inadequacy of education information as soon as we established this subcommittee [in January]; when we sat down and discussed where the greatest needs are, education came to the top of the list," Mr. Bingaman said. "The combination of having a focus on government information and having a significant concern about how to improve education, I think those came together in a very natural way."
As it turns out, the hearings are the first Congressional attempt to follow up on a promise made by summit participants--to institute an annual "report card" measuring the achievement of states, school districts, and even individual schools.
Both Mr. Bingaman and witnesses concentrated on the applicability of current data-gathering efforts to that goal, and concluded that the Education Department's assessment effortudget--would have to be significantly expanded to meet it. (See Education Week, Nov. 1 and 8, 1989.)
Mr. Bingaman called for action, terming the current statistical effort "woefully inadequate."
But Education Department officials and others noted that mandating state participation would obligate the federal government to foot the bill--an estimated $5 million--and would raise hackles in some states.
Naep has historically been prohibited from collecting information that allows comparisons at anything narrower than the national level. A trial state-level assessment in mathematics was authorized last year, but lawmakers shot down proposals to collect a broader range of state-level data.
Proponents of detailed assessment have expressed hope that the summit agreement will make the proposal difficult to oppose.
"As public concern grows for improving education, I think it will get to the point where the forces that resist this kind of change will eventually be overcome by the forces that want to see improvement," Mr. Bingaman said.
His greatest obstacle may not be political resistance, however, but alack of jurisdiction--and of interest on the part of those with jurisdiction.
While the governmental affairs committee has jurisdiction over agency structure and information policy, the Labor and Human Resources Committee oversees the Education Department programs that gather information, such as naep.
"If we get to the point of trying to propose legislation," Mr. Bingaman acknowledged, "they have to be involved."
There does not appear to be a jurisdictional dispute brewing; labor committee aides said their panel was "consulted" before the recent hearings, and one member, Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, made an appearance at one hearing.
But aides on that committee say there is little interest in addressing assessment issues this year.
"Mr. Kennedy remains very interested in naep, but in terms of doing anything right now, there's no feeling at all," said an aide to its chairman, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. "We made a lot of changes last year; let's see how the new provisions are implemented."