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Observers speculated this summer that a battle might be raging in the Education Department's top ranks over reauthorization of the agency's research programs.

The rumor mill had it that Sharon P. Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, wanted to support the reauthorization bill sponsored by Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House panel with jurisdiction over research.

Undersecretary Marshall S. Smith, however, was said to be opposed to provisions that would create an independent policy-setting board to oversee the office of educational research and improvement.

"The bigger issue here is who's going to run O.E.R.I.,'' one lobbyist commented.

Ms. Robinson and Mr. Smith have both denied the existence of a feud, and Mr. Smith said he is not opposed to a policymaking board.

But the Clinton Administration has yet to take a public position on Mr. Owens' bill, fueling the rumors of a split.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley apparently was concerned enough to try to dispel that rumor in a letter to a group of researchers who had met with him.

"Now that a reauthorization bill has passed the House of Representatives, we hope for speedy consideration in the Senate,'' he wrote. "Toward that end, Assistant Secretary Sharon Robinson has the full support of her colleagues throughout the department.''

Mr. Riley told the researchers that he agreed swift action on an O.E.R.I. bill is important, but did not say what bill he would support.

Sources predict that department officials will maintain a low profile, while pushing quietly for legislation that resembles the Senate bill, which would give less authority to the board.

When the Committee for Education Funding hands out awards at its annual banquet, the event serves as an opportunity to stoke the good will of powerful friends on Capitol Hill.

This year, despite education lobbyists' displeasure at President Clinton's budget, the umbrella organization will honor Hillary Rodham Clinton for her "unwavering advocacy on behalf of children.''

Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will also receive awards. Mr. Harkin, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, has been singled out before.

A new honor for freshman members will be awarded to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. Xavier Becerra and Lynn Woolsey, both California Democrats.--J.M.

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