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House Panel Approves Reorganization of O.E.R.I.

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WASHINGTON--The House Education and Labor Committee last week unanimously agreed to reorganize the Education Department's research branch, but there is still some doubt whether the Clinton Administration will go along with the plan.

"We know they are going to support 80 percent of the content of the bill,'' Rep. Major R. Owens, its chief sponsor, said in an interview. "Whether the entire bill is going to be supported isn't clear.''

The New York Democrat confirmed that the chief bone of contention is an independent, policy-setting board his legislation would create to oversee the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

"Citizen participation seems to be the problem,'' he said. "Democracy is the problem.''

While the Administration has not taken a public stance, Education Department representatives have worked with the House committee to modify its legislation, and Mr. Owens has already agreed to a series of changes that reduce the authority of the board.

The original Owens bill would have given the board the authority to approve large contracts. Provisions requiring the Secretary of Education to appoint members from among nominations made by education groups were also deleted.

The board would still develop a long-range research plan for the agency and establish technical standards for awarding grants and evaluating research.

Mr. Owens also agreed to make less specific language setting out the duties of the board and the five subject-oriented research institutes that the bill would establish.

Whither the Administration?

There is some speculation that department officials disagree about whether to accept the new provisions regarding the policy board. But an O.E.R.I. source denied that, and predicted that a letter of support for the bill would be "forthcoming.''

HR 856 would also create a "dissemination office'' to coordinate activities of the regional laboratories, the educational-resources information clearinghouses, and a new educational computer network.

Mr. Owens also slipped in a section requiring continued government operation--and improved management--of the Education Department's research library. It had been slated for privatization under a Reagan Administration initiative, but the Bush Administration quietly dropped the idea. Mr. Owens, the only librarian in Congress, championed the library's cause. (See Education Week, Jan. 10, 1990.)

Republicans' Response

The House committee approved the bill quickly last week on a voice vote, after two Republican members expressed their support sarcastically.

"I'm happy to see that the committee is finally considering a bipartisan education bill,'' said Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the panel's ranking Republican, reminding onlookers of recent, stormy sessions on the Administration's education-reform and community-service proposals.

Aides said the research bill could be considered on the floor as early as this week.

The Senate is expected to approve a bill similar to one that it passed last year. That bill matched up with Mr. Owens' bill in many respects, but would have given the controversial policy board only advisory authority.

The O.E.R.I. reauthorization died at the end of the last Congress, when the House and Senate failed to pass compromise legislation before time ran out. While existing programs can continue, researchers are anxious to see legislation enacted because funding for some programs could become more vulnerable if they are not formally authorized.

In addition, most of the contracts for federally supported research centers expire this year or next year.

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