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Small Program for School Innovations Faces Scrutiny

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WASHINGTON--When Congress this year considers the massive reauthorization of elementary and secondary education programs, one of the many items on its agenda will be the fate of a small, obscure program that supporters say has a potentially big impact.

The Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching will never garner the Congressional attention and lobbying clout that will be focused on Chapter 1 and other major programs. But backers urge that FIRST be given a new lease on life because it is the only Education Department program that is directly aimed at fostering school-based innovations.

Created in 1988, the program was modeled after the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, a highly regarded program that has spawned numerous reforms in higher education.

In practice, though, FIRST has fallen short of expectations, critics contend. They suggest that because of bureaucratic red tape and the fact that it is located within the Education Department's research office, the program has mainly benefited organizations that are skilled in grantsmanship, rather than schools that are experimenting with innovative programs.

Critics of the program include the chairman of its independent advisory board and its former director, who was ousted last year amid controversy over a disputed grant award.

Moreover, some maintain, the FIRST office has been used as a "slush fund'' for the Secretary of Education.

"I think it has not lived up to its hopes, as expressed by Congress in legislation, and by some members of the Administration,'' said Peter Briggs, the headmaster of the Greenhill School, an independent pre-K through 12th-grade school in Dallas, and the chairman of the advisory board.

Mr. Briggs said that, to improve it, Congress should move the program out of the office of educational research and improvement and boost its stature within the department.

But Congressional aides and former officials of the Bush Administration defend the program and maintain that it has succeeded in spurring innovative ideas. Although there is not yet a proposal to reauthorize FIRST, its supporters say it should be continued with few changes.

Created by Congress as part of the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1988, the FIRST office originally encompassed three separate programs with a current total budget of $49 million. They are the FIRST program itself, the Fund for Innovation in Education, and the Eisenhower National Program for Mathematics and Science Education.

The Eisenhower program has since been moved to a separate agency within the O.E.R.I.

According to one Senate aide involved in the legislation that created it, FIRST was intended to support innovative projects by individual schools.

"At the time it was set up, that idea didn't have the currency it currently has,'' the aide said. "It addressed issues people are concerned with now.''

But Paul A. Gagnon, who served as the program's director until he was removed last September, said that, in practice, it has operated "quite opposite'' to Congressional intent.

Instead of going to individual schools, he maintained, program funds often went to associations and higher-education institutions.

"The establishment is O.K., but it already has plenty of chances,'' Mr. Gagnon said.

'It's Done Some Good'

Mr. Gagnon also charged that the F.I.E. program, which was formerly the Secretary's discretionary fund, has occasionally been used as a "slush fund.'' It has, for example, funded several of the projects to develop national subject-matter standards, a top priority of Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

Mr. Gagnon attributed the pattern of grant awards to the procedures the agency used to solicit and review grants, which he said favored institutions that had a "slick grant-writing machinery.''

He said he tried to change some of the procedures, but was thwarted by career civil servants in the agency. He added that he further antagonized the program's staff members when he brought with him two aides from his previous job with FIPSE.

Diane S. Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement, said Mr. Gagnon's clashes with the agency's staff proved to be a liability.

"It's the nature of government,'' she said. "If you can't work with civil servants, you're dead. Paul couldn't.''

Ms. Ravitch also said that she removed him from his post amid charges over a disputed award for a technology-demonstration grant. A recent General Accounting Office review of the grant award found that the process had been "poorly managed.'' (See Education Week, Dec. 16, 1992.)

"He was the director; he had to be accountable for it,'' she said.

Ms. Ravitch also denied that the program was used as a slush fund, arguing instead that it has supported the type of school-based reforms it was intended to foster.

But she acknowledged that FIRST may not have had as great an impact as it might have.

"It's done some good,'' Ms. Ravitch suggested. "But with small amounts of money, it's hard to tell whether it's done worlds of good.''

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