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Ravitch Followed Procedure in Grant Award, G.A.O. Says

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WASHINGTON--Although the process was "poorly managed,'' a top official of the Education Department acted within her authority in awarding a hotly contested grant for an educational-technology demonstration project, the General Accounting Office has concluded.

The Congressional agency investigated the award after members of Congress alleged that the grant--which went to a Texas school district a month before the Presidential election--may have been tainted by political considerations. (See Education Week, Oct. 14, 1992.)

But in a letter to Congress, sent last week, the auditors state that they had concluded that the procedures for awarding grants were indeed followed.

"Notwithstanding the fact that it was poorly managed, the assistant secretary [for educational research and improvement] has wide discretion in making grant awards,'' said Linda Morra, the director for education and employment issues at the G.A.O. "In making the award, she was acting within her authority.''

Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary for the O.E.R.I., said she felt "vindicated'' by the report, and added that the agency has taken a number of steps--including replacing the head of the program that operated the grant in dispute--to improve the management of the awards process.

"I think we are better as a result of it,'' Ms. Ravitch said.

But members of Congress who represent states that lost in the grant competition say they remain troubled by the incident and are exploring remedies.

"We're befuddled by such a flawed process,'' a spokesman for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said.

Flaws in the Process

The disputed grant, authorized by Congress, provided $6 million over two years to the McKinney (Tex.) Independent School District to demonstrate the use of technology in boosting student achievement in core academic subjects.

In making the award, Ms. Ravitch acknowledged that she overrode the peer reviewers' recommendations, the only time she had done so in her tenure as assistant secretary.

She said she took the extraordinary step because she was unimpressed with the application the peer reviewers had rated most highly. That proposal was submitted by the Connecticut department of education.

"I took very seriously these words [in the request for proposals]: 'high-technology demonstration,''' she said last week. "The big state proposals were not demonstrations. What they were were add-ons to existing programs.''

But the G.A.O. found a number of problems in the awards process.

For example, it pointed out, the department's priorities were so vague as to allow vague applications. It also found that reviewers' comments on the top-ranked proposal were lost.

The agency also concluded that Ms. Ravitch's action in reviewing the applications after the peer-review process "lacked safeguards to assure independence of reviews among the personal staff and the assistant secretary.''

'Not Many Open Doors'

Ms. Ravitch acknowledged that the process was flawed, but said she has taken steps to improve competitions within the agency.

Specifically, she said, she removed the manager of the program that oversaw the competition, Paul A. Gagnon, and replaced him with a career civil servant, Jan Anderson.

She also said she has instructed Ms. Anderson and other agency officials to do more to publicize grant competitions to improve the quality of applications they receive.

Some members of Congress, however, say the steps may not be sufficient, and are considering other options.

But John F. Jennings, an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee, said the critics' options are limited, since the çŸáŸïŸ concluded that Ms. Ravitch acted within her authority. Moreover, he noted, by the time Congress acts, at least half of the award money to the McKinney schools will have already been spent.

"It doesn't look like there are many open doors,'' Mr. Jennings said.

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