Canceled Grant Competitions Drew Congressional Scrutiny
Washington--The act that focused Congressional attention on the Bush Administration's use of educational-research funds was the May announcement that two grant competitions would be canceled and that the money would be diverted to support the Administration's America 2000 education strategy.
In one of the competitions, about $990,000 was to support a proposed new center on the dissemination of research.
Instead, the money will be used for such activities as conferences, publications, and videotapes that are efforts "to disseminate information about what research and practice tell us about how to go about achieving the national education goals," said Bruno V. Manno, acting assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.
He said several awards will probably be made, to research centers or possibly to a public-relations firm.
Is this a public-relations campaign for the goals adopted last year by the Administration and the National Governors' Association--and for the Administration--as critics charge?
"If you want to talk about P.R. in a positive way," Mr. Manno said, "you might talk about dissemination."
A report accompanying the appropriations law for the current fiscal year states that "sufficient funds are included to fund all 18 new [research] centers as proposed in the President's budget."
Administration officials argue, however, that they are not required to establish 18 centers and that the overall amount earmarked for centers has been spent on the other 17.
Similarly, they argue that $9.7 million from the Secretary's discretionary fund that was to be used for school-restructuring projects can be shifted to support America 2000 without approval, since the law allows virtually unrestricted use of that money.
The Administration plans to use the money to make one-year grants to start training academies for educators.
While the Administration agrees that its plan for a network of state academies needs Congressional authorization, Mr. Manno said the pilot project is different.
"This isn't a formula grant to states," he said. "This is intended to demonstrate the feasibility."
Lawmakers are also irritated by the Administration's use of research funds to support highly controversial ideas. Some, for example, com8plain about conferences and publications touting educational choice.
The announcement that Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander intended to use $12.9 million in discretionary research funds to develop national standards and achievement tests--revealed casually in a revised budget request--generated substantial controversy, and not only among Democrats.
"National testing is a very important issue, and should be carefully discussed," said an aide to Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee and a longtime critic of standardized testing.
Another sore point is the Administration's financial support of the National Education Goals Panel, which some lawmakers--angry at being excluded from the goals process--think is insufficiently independent.
Mr. Manno said the Education Department contributed $300,000 from its "salaries and expenses" account in the current fiscal year, and also assigned five department employees to the goals panel.
But the time and efforts of many other o.e.r.i. employees and units have also been at least partially focused on providing research support to the initiative.
For example, sources in the research community say the laboratories with federal contracts were asked to help foot the bill for a series of regional hearings held by the goals panel. Mr. Manno acknowledged only that "the labs were asked to help organize" the meetings.
In its budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, the Administration asked for $3.3 million to pay the panel's administrative and personnel costs and $2 million to help develop its "national report card," in addition to the funds officials want to spend on testing projects intimately tied to the panel's work.
"This was incredibly insensitive given that the dispute [with the Congress] over the panel has never been resolved," a Democratic Senate aide said.
Some lawmakers also complain about how the department used $4.88 million that was earmarked in fiscal 1991 for "follow up" on the President's 1989 "education summit."
Report language stipulated that "a significant portion of the funds should be directed to the states for school improvement and reform consistent with" language in an earlier House bill.
However, only $250,000 is to go directly to states, in the form of consortia that are to "provide advice and guidance" based on research to state officials.
The bulk of the money--$4.3 million--is supporting statistical research related to the goals panel's work on developing a report card.
Finally, members of Congress are concerned about smaller transfers within the o.e.r.i. budget.
For example, in the Administration's 1992 budget request, $250,000 that had been appropriated for the department's regional laboratories was shifted without explanation to other lines in the 1991 column. It turns out that the Administration is using the funds for laboratory evaluation and for a Congressionally mandated project, run through the laboratories, to recruit minority researchers.
Congressional aides and others note that such quiet transfers raise suspicions--which are often admittedly unfocused, but which can create an air of hostility on Capitol Hill.
"We know there's a lot of skimming in each of those [research] accounts for things the Administration wants to do to further its agenda," a Democratic appropriations aide knowledgeable about the o.e.r.i. budget said.
"They spring this stuff on us by dropping little hints in their budget justifications," the aide said. "It makes us wonder what else is going on over there."