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Congress Seeks To Restrict Use of E.D. Research Funds

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Washington--Both the House and Senate have approved appropriations bills that would restrict the Education Department's use of discretionary funds in an effort to prevent the Administration from pursuing its education agenda without Congressional input.

But Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said in an interview that he plans to continue the initiatives that spurred the Congressional backlash--possibly setting the stage for a battle between the Congress and the department.

"If we're not supporting our national goals, what should the Department of Education be doing?" Mr. Alexander asked rhetorically.

Both chambers' appropriations bills would increase the agency's overall research budget, which was $128.2 million in fiscal 1991, in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

The House bill would provide $149 million, with the increases spread roughly evenly among the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and other research efforts. It also would provide an additional $8 million for a high-technology initiative favored by appropriators.

The Senate version would provide $135.8 million, with almost all the increase in the research account.

The Administration had requested $154.3 million, as well as an additional $5.3 million to support activities of the National Education Goals Panel, which the Administration and the National Governors' Association set up to monitor progress toward the goals they adopted last year.

More significantly, the money within the research account, which has traditionally not been formally segregated, was earmarked in both bills for specific purposes.

About $10 million in discretionary research money was available to the department in fiscal 1991. The House bill would provide only $2.5 million in fiscal 1992; the Senate bill, $3 million.

The Fund for Innovation in Education, the department's other significant source of discretionary money, would also be cut by $8.7 million under the House bill; the Senate bill would level-fund it at $27.7 million, as the Administration requested, but earmark most of the money for specific purposes.

Lawmakers Irked

The bills are a tangible expression of anger that has been building among some members of the Congress, who feel that the Administration has tried to shut them out of the debate on education policy. (See Education Week, June 19, 1991.)

Lawmakers are still irritated at being left out of the goals-setting process and the 1989 education summit that launched it, and have thus been annoyed at the Administration's use of research funds to support the goals panel.

They are also angered by plans to launch parts of the Administration's America 2000 education strategy without Congressional approval--in particular, controversial plans to develop national achievement tests.

An announcement in May that two grant competitions would be canceled and that the money would be diverted to America 2000 activities further focused Congressional attention on the issue.

The report accompanying the House bill chides the Administration for that decision, and forbids the planned use of $7 million from the Fund for Innovation to launch state-level academies for educators without Congressional approval.

The committee proposed cutting the account's funding "based on its concern about the manner in which the department has used its discretionary funds in 1991," the report said. "While the committee has traditionally allowed considerable latitude in allocating these funds, this does not include authority to initiate a new $7-million grant program without the committee's permission."

Both bill reports include other pointed, prohibitive statements. Both, for example, state: "No funds may be transferred to this [research] account except as specifically authorized," and that no money earmarked for laboratories and centers "will be retained by the Department of Education for any purpose."

The House report also states that the $5.7-million increase earmarked for the nces is to be used only to "maintain the center's ongoing data-collection systems."

Congressional aides said the language was added in response to complaints from nces officials, as well as from outside observers, that the center's resources were being diverted to data collection in support of the goals panel and America 2000.

'Ruffled Feathers'

Mr. Alexander downplayed the significance of the appropriators' actions.

"I don't see it as a major problem," he said. "I've spent a lot of time with Congressmen individually, and I don't hear this from them. I've only had one or two members of the House even mention this to me as an issue."

"I think some feathers were ruffled," he said. "I think it has more to do with Congressional relations than it does with policy differences."

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