Congress Weighing Proposal To Rein In E.D. Research Unit
Washington--Members of the Congress who think the Bush Administration has tried to shut them out of the debate on education policy intend to retaliate by slashing the Education Department's research budget and restricting the agency's ability to use research funds for discretionary projects.
In the past few months, many Democrats and some Republicans have expressed concern--mostly in private, but occasionally in public--that the Administration is using research funds to support activities that the Congress has not authorized. A noteworthy sore point is the work of the National Education Goals Panel, which was formed by the Administration and the National Governors' Association.
Administration officials argue that the statute creating the office of educational research and improvement is sufficiently broad that it authorizes all the disputed activities, and Congressional sources generally concede that such an interpretation is correct.
"I've gone to a lot of briefings on the Hill about this, and they always end up agreeing that we're not doing anything wrong," said Sally H. Christensen, director of the department's budget service.
An aide to Representative Major R. Owens, the New York Democrat who chairs the Select Education Subcommittee, said that a General Accounting Office audit that he requested did not turn up any violations of law, and that it is possible no written report will be issued.
"A secretary has to have some flexibility. He shouldn't have to make the rounds every time he wants to spend $10," Undersecretary Ted Sanders said. "The record suggests that you have very little time here and you must make the most of it."
Bruno V. Manno, acting assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said: "There's a clear effort here to put our money where our rhetoric is. What's wrong with that?"
"In the past, we were accused of aimlessly drifting along," he said. "Now there's a focus, and we're criticized for that."
But the apparent legal propriety of the Administration's actions has not quelled Congressional indignation.
"Legally, they're right," a Democratic appropriations aide said. "Politically, they're crazy."
Lawmakers were already annoyed by the amount of Education Department funds used to support the goals effort in the current fiscal year.
But they became even more irritated when the Administration indicated in its revised 1992 budget request that it plans increased spending on the goals panel and also intends to start up some of the projects included in America 2000, the education strategy unveiled in late April.
Activities to be undertaken without Congressional authorization include development of national standards and tests--a particularly controversial proposition on Capitol Hill.
Then, on May 2, the Administration announced that it was canceling a new research center on dissemination and a grant competition that was to support school-restructuring projects, and that it was redirecting the funds to America 2000 activities.
"That announcement really focused everyone's attention," said John F. Jennings, Democratic counsel to the Education and Labor Committee.
On May 7, Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee, and Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the panel's ranking Republican, told an appropriations subcommittee that no funds should be appropriated for such initiatives until they are specifically authorized by the Congress. (See Education Week, May 15, 1991.)
On May 8, Mr. Owens held a hearing at which he denounced the funding transfers announced the previous week and the Administration's use of oeri funds for studies and conferences on educational choice.
"We may be in danger of sliding down the slippery slope of partisan politics," Mr. Owens said.
The Education Department tried to put out the fire by sending a letter to appropriators, signed by Mr. Sanders, that explains why the Administration views the new projects as a better use of funds.
But last week, the animosity that had been bubbling just below the surface erupted in the form of an appropriations bill, approved in closed session by the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. (See story, page 27.)
Aides familiar with the bill said it would essentially freeze the o.e.r.i.'s overall budget, increasing it from $233.4 million to $233.8 million.
In addition, the bill allots the money in unusually detailed fashion. As a result, aides said, while the agency's 1991 budget contained about $10 million in discretionary research funds--those not earmarked for certain projects--the bill would provide only $2.5 million in unrestricted aid in 1992.
The agency's other primary source of discretionary funds, the Secretary's fund for innovation, which received $27.7 million in the current fiscal year, would be cut by $9 million under the subcommittee bill.
In addition, aides said, the bill provides no funds for goals-panel activities--for which the Administration requested $5.3 million--and set aside only $250 million for new initiatives, which can be used only if authorizing legislation is passed.
The bill states that the money must otherwise be funneled to programs that provide formula grants to states or school districts.
A Democratic aide on the subcommittee said that its members were concerned about the use of o.e.r.i. funds for unauthorized projects, but that the earmarks are also an effort to protect research funding from more severe attacks.
"They've clearly pushed their discretionary authority way beyond what Congress intended," said Dena G. Stoner, executive director of the Council for Educational Development and Research, which represents research laboratories and centers. "The committee told them that."
The department's broad research authority "was there to further the legislative objectives," Ms. Stoner said. "It wasn't there to push through the Administration's program."
Mr. Jennings added, "We're telling the Secretary that he has to deal with Congress, and sending the message that o.e.r.i. has to be stabilized, not politicized."
"The Secretary apparently came into town thinking he could do what he wants, that money is there and you just have to move it around," he said. "Well, this isn't a state legislature."
"Right now we have a secretary who's done more to consult with Congress than any of his predecessors," Mr. Sanders said, noting that lawmakers were pleased at the way Mr. Alexander worked with them to forge a compromise on a recent bill creating a council to study testing.
"I would hope they would think twice before messing up that chemistry," Mr. Sanders said. "If they tie his hands ... we could miss the chance to move forward in a bipartisan way."
A top Democratic aide on the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending said senators are also discussing the Administration's use of research funds, but that it is too early to predict whether the cuts and earmarks will stick.
The Congress is likely to take long-term action as well.
Aides from both parties and education lobbyists predicted that the Congress is likely to place new restrictions on the use of research funds as part of legislation to reauthorize the oeri--although Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week asked for more flexibility. (See story, following page.)
"Damn right we will," Mr. Owens' aide said. "This isn't kindergarten."
"There was an interest in tighten4ing the authorization, anyway, since there's a sentiment that [the o.e.r.i.] isn't having enough impact," said Andrew Hartman, the House committee's Republican staff director.
Mr. Hartman said, however, that even some Republicans are concerned about some of the projects the Administration plans to undertake without Congressional authorization, particularly work on developing national student-achievement tests.
"It's like they said, 'We're going to do this on the side with some loose change, but don't you worry about it,"' he said. "I think they were somewhat naive."
Gerald E. Sroufe, director of governmental and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association, said he views the appropriations subcommittee's action as "good news," although it resulted in only a small increase for the o.e.r.i.
"The association is concerned about creating an o.e.r.i. that's not a political football," he said. "We are concerned that it not be seen as the ideological arm of whomever's in charge."
The roots of the conflict over use of federal research funds are deep.
Members of the Congress historically have been reluctant to make a large commitment to educational research for fear that the money would be used to support a political agenda.
In addition, many members have been irritated about being excluded from the goals-setting process that the Bush Administration and the nga launched at their 1989 "education summit" in Charlottesville, Va.
Four non-voting Congressional members named to the panel created to monitor progress toward the goals have not participated, and some key lawmakers support proposals to create a more independent panel.
The Administration's use of research funds for the panel and its other projects "rubs salt in that wound," a Democratic appropriations aide said. "It has created an environment in which people are suspicious."