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N.S.F. Stops Funding for R.I. Initiative

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Washington

In an unprecedented move, the National Science Foundation has cut off federal funding for a statewide effort to reform mathematics and science education.

The N.S.F. late last month informed Rhode Island that it was terminating a "cooperative agreement'' signed with the state as part of the foundation's State Systemic Initiative program.

An N.S.F. official explained that an "array of deficits'' in the state's K-8 reform plan made it impossible for the foundation to continue its commitment to fund the five-year, $9.3 million grant.

Under the innovative S.S.I. program, which was launched in 1991, the foundation has provided up to $10 million each in federal funding over five years to partnerships of state education agencies, higher-education boards, and reform-minded groups. In return, the grantees are supposed to show measurable progress toward reform objectives.

The program represents a new direction for the N.S.F., by requiring greater accountability from grantees while at the same time encouraging greater flexibility in meeting reform goals. (See Education Week, May 13, 1992.)

The foundation currently is replicating the S.S.I. model in an urban-systemic-initiative program in the nation's 25 poorest cities, and is on the verge of launching a similar effort in rural areas. (See Education Week, Dec. 15, 1993.)

Rhode Island is the first of the 26 S.S.I. grantees to lose its grant. But a number of other states, including Texas, have received temporary suspensions of funding since the program was launched, said Luther Williams, the assistant head of the N.S.F.'s education and human-resources directorate.

States are given suspension notices to allow them to improve their programs in order to forestall a funding cutoff, he said.

Federal Insensitivity Seen

The N.S.F.'s action prompted some local officials to sharply criticize the way the foundation is running the S.S.I. program.

David Molina, the project director for the Texas initiative, conceded that the state's initial S.S.I. proposal "was not a good plan.'' But, he said, state officials have been frustrated both by what they see as federal insensitivity to local concerns about reform and by a perception that the S.S.I. lacks an overall vision for what individual programs should accomplish.

Mr. Molina said an N.S.F. panel is expected to decide by this week whether to fund a revised plan, which he noted is one component of a larger statewide reform effort.

No matter what happens with the N.S.F. review, he vowed, "we're going to go ahead with our plan and, if we have to, then we'll do it with our limited state funds.''

Mr. Molina added that he is pessimistic about prospects for the grant, since N.S.F. officials have been unsympathetic to complaints that the foundation is trying to micromanage the program.

"If you had talked to me a month ago, I would have been a lot more confident,'' he said. "Right now, I am actively looking for another job. I have to.''

Leverage to Naysayers?

Rhode Island officials said the N.S.F.'s decision could set back reform efforts in the state by shaking public confidence.

"When you attach the name of the National Science Foundation, there's a sense that [the initiative] really means something,'' said Dennis Cheek, the state education department's project director for the S.S.I. grant. "So losing it throws your entire reform effort into question.''

Mr. Cheek said a statewide committee will seek alternative sources of funds to continue the initiative, which is attempting to establish school-based leadership teams in every school.

But, he warned, fiscal constraints and renewed skepticism about the potential for change may doom the initiative.

"To some degree, the decision provides leverage to the naysayers,'' he said. "Rhode Island may end up in worse condition than it was before.''

Observers in Washington noted, however, that the N.S.F.'s decision to follow through with the program's implicit threat to punish noncompliance with loss of funding helps both strengthen the foundation's reputation for accountability and publicly demonstrate its resolve to avoid a "business as usual'' approach to systemic reform.

The General Accounting Office has been looking into the accountability of grants made by the education directorate, whose budget grew rapidly in the late 1980's and early 1990's. (See Education Week, Dec. 15, 1993.)

Driving Force for Change

The decision to drop Rhode Island was made as part of a "midterm review'' of the first 10 states to be enrolled in the program.

Although the review was conducted by outside experts, Mr. Williams said he was responsible for enforcing the recommendation to end the cooperative agreement.

Competition for the S.S.I. program has been stiff, and some states have made multiple applications before winning a grant.

Backers say the program has been effective because the N.S.F.'s prestige can foster partnerships between forces that have never before worked together.

"I would like to think that we would have done this without the N.S.F.,'' Kerry Davidson, the director of the Louisiana program, told a hearing last month. "But that would not have been possible.''

Testifying before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee on reauthorization of the science foundation, Mr. Davidson described the S.S.I. as a "driving force to change school culture.''

Although the $10 million or so given each state is often a very small fraction of its education budget, Mr. Davidson argued that the uncommitted resources provided by the program can leverage much larger commitments.

Mr. Molina, on the other hand, said the N.S.F. has demanded too much in return for its $2 million annual contribution to Texas's multibillion-dollar education budget.

"Some people feel that they're more of an obstacle to reform,'' he said.

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