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In Clearing O.E.R.I. Bill, Senate Panel Backs More Funding

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WASHINGTON--A Senate committee last week cleared for floor consideration a bill that would reauthorize the office of educational research and improvement, after adopting an amendment increasing the amount of funding the bill would authorize.

The bill, S 286, still differs from its House counterpart in granting the Education Department more control over spending research funds and shaping the research agenda.

The House bill, HR 856, would give substantial authority to an independent, policymaking board. Under S 286, the new board would be advisory in nature. (See Education Week, Oct. 27, 1993.)

The current debate over how much power the board would have and how much discretionary money the bill would allow is strongly influenced by longtime criticisms that the O.E.R.I.'s direction has been driven by the political whims of whatever administration is in office.

An aide to Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., the chairman of the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities, said S 286 intentionally offers the Administration more flexibility.

"The pendulum has swung to the left and to the right; we want it in the middle,'' the aide said. "But we don't want to micromanage the department, regardless of who's in office.''

As approved by the Labor and Human Resources Committee, the bill would require the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement to launch five directorates, entities designed to divide research into thematic areas to better coordinate it. The subcommittee version of the bill required that only three be established immediately.

Reorganization Mandated

The directorate system is modeled after the National Institutes of Health as called for by an influential study on the O.E.R.I. done in 1992 by the National Academy of Sciences.

Federal research centers--which, along with regional laboratories, conduct the bulk of the O.E.R.I.'s research--would be coordinated by the directorates.

The Administration "needs to start all the directorates and give them a chance to grow, rather than starting just a few and forgetting the rest,'' said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association.

At last week's markup, the committee raised the funding ceiling for the directorates from $70 million to $100 million, the amount specified in HR 856. But the two bills would divide the funds differently.

The House authorizes $20 million for each directorate, setting aside one-third of that to fund centers. The Senate bill sets aside one-third of the funds for centers as well, but sets out an elaborate formula under which the amount each directorate received would change based on what is appropriated.

Increased funding for field-initiated research, for which the agency has received no more than $1 million per year in recent years, would also be tied to this formula.

Under any scenario, the Senate bill would grant more funds than the House bill to the directorate on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and what lobbyists term "sizable'' discretionary funds--up to $20 million--for the assistant secretary to use within the directorates.

To insure that each center is viable, senators set a minimum funding level of $1.1 million per center, and a $2 million minimum for each new regional laboratory. Authorization for the labs was raised to $41 million from $37 million.

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