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Published in Print: June 2, 1999, as Republicans Vow To Free NCES From Political Meddling

Republicans Vow To Free NCES From Political Meddling

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Congressional Republicans say they want the National Center for Education Statistics to be free from the day-to-day political influence of future presidential administrations.

Senior members of the House education committee said last week that Vice President Al Gore had tainted results from the student assessment overseen by the center when he put a positive spin on them in February. And just last month, new questions arose when the Clinton administration declined to renominate the federal commissioner of statistics, who heads the NCES, after he sided with critics of Mr. Gore's role, the GOP lawmakers said.

"They need to be independent so they can drive the debate ... rather than being perceived as a political organization," Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said at a hearing.

Mr. Hoekstra and Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said after the hearing that they would look at other federal statistical agencies for models to see how the NCES could be better insulated from political considerations.

That question will be "absolutely critical" when Congress turns to revising the law that defines the lines of authority between the Department of Education and the NCES, according to Mr. Castle.

"The commissioner is very much beholden to the Department of Education," Mr. Castle said in the interview. He chairs the K-12 subcommittee that will oversee changes to the NCES organizational structure.

The Clinton administration hasn't yet sent its reauthorization proposal to Congress. David Frank, an Education Department spokesman, declined to comment on the idea of granting the statistical agency independent status.

'Good News'

Questions about the administration's influence over the NCES have arisen since a Feb. 10 news conference where Mr. Gore dominated the stage during the release of the 1998 reading results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Mr. Gore spoke about the results ahead of Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of the NCES. According to long-standing policy, Mr. Forgione was to release the scores first and then allow others to interpret them.

Instead, Mr. Gore hailed the rise in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade scores in 1998, compared with those from 1994, before Mr. Forgione could point out that 4th and 12th graders had shown "no net gain" since 1992, the first time the NAEP reading test was given. ("Board Contends Gore's Role Politicized NAEP Release," March 10, 1998.)

At last week's hearing, Mr. Hoekstra released internal electronic mail between Education Department officials and an education adviser to the vice president, Jonathan Schnur, that indicates the Feb. 10 event was designed to give positive press coverage to Mr. Gore, who is running for president. Mr. Hoekstra requested the e-mail from the department, which turned it over voluntarily.

In a Feb. 9 message, for example, Mr. Schnur suggests to a department official that packages distributed to journalists be assembled to display an executive summary more prominently than Mr. Forgione's statement.

After the event, Mr. Schnur asked the department's press secretary: "Do you think the press will cover it as good news?"

Mr. Schnur was not in his office last Thursday and did not return a message left on his voice mail.

Political Pressure

After the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy, protested that Mr. Gore had created a partisan atmosphere that might undermine the test scores' credibility, Mr. Forgione publicly questioned the vice president's role in the Feb. 10 event and supported a revision to the board's policy that requires the NCES to issue the official press releases on NAEP results.

At last week's hearing, Mr. Hoekstra suggested that there might be a link between Mr. Forgione's support of NAGB and the White House's decision to block his renomination. The commissioner withdrew his name from consideration May 18, after administration officials said his failure to file income-tax returns in a timely manner might cause problems with Congress.2

"Perhaps, by doing the job of maintaining the independence of that agency, [Mr. Forgione] may have lost the opportunity to be reappointed to his job," Mr. Hoekstra said.

"I've heard this tax [reason] ... that doesn't seem overwhelming to me," said Mr. Castle, who was the governor of Delaware when Mr. Forgione was the state schools superintendent there. "Frankly, I just hope it was not for political reasons."

But an Education Department spokesman said there was no link between the commissioner's impending departure and his criticisms of the Feb. 10 event.

"It's nonsense to say Forgione was not reappointed" because of his statements about Mr. Gore's presentation at the press conference, Mr. Frank, the communications director for Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and the recipient of some of the e-mail from Mr. Schnur, said in an interview after the hearing.

Also last week, the Advisory Council on Education Statistics, which works closely with Mr. Forgione, expressed its dismay to Mr. Riley that the commissioner will leave his job June 21.

"We advised you that he be retained, and we are disappointed that he has not been," Andrew C. Porter, the council's chairman and the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, wrote in a May 24 letter.

The department has yet to decide who will replace Mr. Forgione, Mr. Frank said.

Vol. 18, Issue 38, Page 18

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