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Bill To Revamp Research Office Emerges on Agenda

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WASHINGTON--After almost eight months in limbo, reauthorization of the Education Department's research branch is apparently moving up on the Congressional agenda.

As a result, observers say, a dramatic reorganization of the federal education-research enterprise could be enacted this year.

The Clinton Administration has privately indicated its willingness to move forward this year on reauthorization of the office of educational research and improvement, and a House subcommittee plans to vote on a reauthorization bill late this month.

"I'm definitely happy to see it go soon,'' said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of governmental and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association. "People in the department are looking for some direction and don't have any.''

Mr. Sroufe noted that contracts for most of the O.E.R.I.'s research centers expire this year or next, and that appropriators are often reluctant to invest in programs that lack formal authorizations.

The O.E.R.I.'s legal foundation technically expired last fall, and legislation to extend it died at the end of the 102nd Congress. It was held up by disagreement over a proposal to create a powerful, independent policy board to oversee the office's work.

Another factor in the death of the bill last year was the partisan animosity that had built over the agency during the past decade, in which Democrats repeatedly accused Republican administrations of politicizing the office.

While Democrats now control the executive branch, Congress has a full slate of education issues to tackle this year. Given the need to work on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, President Clinton's proposed national-service program, and a separate education-reform bill, observers have speculated that the O.E.R.I. might be pushed to a back burner.

Indeed, transition-team advisers suggested that the research reauthorization be postponed, and Administration officials said they did not view the issue as an early priority. Some observers expected research provisions to be attached to the E.S.E.A. legislation, which may not pass until 1994.

Owens Persists

But Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights and the primary sponsor of last year's House bill, has not wavered in his desire to see legislation enacted soon. Capitol Hill sources said his insistence apparently persuaded the Administration and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, to agree to move more quickly.

"There was talk about a one-year extension, but that seems to have been quashed,'' a Republican House aide said. "I think the Administration wants to put it off but they realize that's not going to happen.''

Mr. Owens and Sharon Robinson, who has been nominated to be the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said in interviews that the Administration and Congressional leaders have agreed to move forward. They both downplayed suggestions that the Administration had changed its plans.

"There was no active decision one way or another,'' Ms. Robinson said.

"There was never a decision not to go forward, just rumors,'' Mr. Owens said.

He said he had "a commitment'' from the Administration and from Senator Kennedy "to go ahead and reorganize the O.E.R.I. this year.''

"There is some disagreement as to what we should reauthorize,'' Mr. Owens continued. "We're working hard to get consensus.''

In February, Mr. Owens introduced HR 856, which is similar to the legislation he sponsored last year. It would reorganize the O.E.R.I. into five "institutes'' focusing on specific issues and authorize increased spending. The bill would also create a powerful policymaking board that would set standards for the agency's activities and approve large contracts.

In the 102nd Congress, the Bush Administration and many Congressional Republicans objected vehemently to a board that would wrest so much control from the assistant secretary, arguing it would make the O.E.R.I. impossible to control and vulnerable to special-interest groups.

An Issue of Control

The Bush Administration noted at that time that the Owens bill would give many education associations specific power to nominate board members, who would be appointed by the Secretary of Education from their nominations.

In the Senate, Mr. Kennedy's committee approved a more limited bill under which the governing board would have been advisory in nature.

Ms. Robinson said Clinton Administration officials have not decided whether to sign on to Mr. Owens's bill, push for something closer to last year's Senate bill, or submit their own proposal.

"I know they're going to submit recommendations, but I don't know if they'll submit a whole bill,'' Mr. Owens said.

Clinton Administration officials have hinted that they "have some of the same problems with the Owens bill that the last Administration had,'' a Senate aide said, but have not signaled their plans.

"The Administration hasn't told us what their intentions are,'' said a Democratic House aide. "I think it's truly under discussion and there are different views within the department.''

"A lot of us are wondering who's in control,'' a lobbyist added.

Several observers noted speculation in the education community about whether Ms. Robinson or Marshall S. Smith would oversee the reauthorization effort. Mr. Smith, who has been nominated to be undersecretary, is generally seen as the top policy adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Observers said they expected some clearer signals from the Administration prior to the June 29 markup.

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