WASHINGTON--Proposals for at least 15 of the 34 discretionary grants recently awarded by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett were rated lower than some of the eventual losers by peer-review panels, it was disclosed last week.
According to Education Department documents, the reviewers of the 277 applications ranked the application of the National Catholic Educational Association proposal 168th, that of the University of Illinois 146th, and that of the National Governors’ Association 205th. Twelve other winning proposals were also ranked below the 34th slot, the documents show.
Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the department budget, released the data at a hearing during which Mr. Bennett came under sharp attack for his proposed fiscal 1987 budget. (See Budget Watch on this page.)
Senator Weicker, a Connecticut Republican and frequent critic of the Reagan Administration, said afterward that his panel plans to “take a closer look at the discretionary awards” to ensure that “they were intended to achieve a factual basis for innovation, for change, for a better system, and not on behalf of philosophical objectives that have nothing to do with the educational system.”
Mr. Bennett defended the grants, saying that he took into account factors the reviewers may not have considered significant, such as the potential impact of the activities. He added that the peer reviewers’ recommendations were not binding but advisory.
The awards--which use 1985 funds and are intended to promote “content, character, and choice"--were approved last September but not released until last month. (See Education Week, March 19, 1986.)
The Chicago public-school system, which requested $4.4 million, received the biggest discretionary grant, $250,000, but was ranked 227th by the reviewers.
The department, however, was required to give the Chicago district a sizable award under a federal court’s interpretation of a desegregation agreement between the federal government and the city, said Bruce M. Carnes, deputy undersecretary of planning, budget, and evaluation.
Explaining his decision to make awards to the N.C.E.A. and the N.G.A., Mr. Bennett said he “took into account the significance of these two groups” and the broad effect their work would probably have.
The Catholic educators got $40,000 to assess the impact of their schools on low-income students; the governors’ $150,000 grant is for their education task forces; Edward A. Wynne, professor of education at University of Illinois, received $96,307 for a study on character in schools.
At a similar hearing last year before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, Senator Weicker quizzed Mr. Bennett about two controversial department political appointees, who subsequently resigned, two days after they themselves testified before the committee.
At last week’s session, Senator Weicker not only criticized the grants but questioned the propriety and legality of department-funded activities concerning textbooks. He disparaged a study by a New York University scholar, Paul C. Vitz, which asserted that textbooks have liberal political biases and generally ignore religion.
He also noted that Mr. Vitz had won a $23,957 discretionary grant, although he was not in the top 34.
Senator Weicker asked whether department officials had the legal authority to comment directly on the content of textbooks.
He cited a portion of the law that established the Education Department that prohibits agency officials from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over ... textbooks .... " Mr. Bennett denied that his activities had been improper, saying, “We are not directing the content of texts.” He continued, “We are commenting on the quality of education, and textbooks are part of it.”
Questioning on textbooks produced a sharp exchange between Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer and Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, which featured table-pounding and charges of “McCarthyism.”
The exchange between Mr. Bauer and Mr. Harkin resulted from questioning about the Undersecretary’s comments that American history texts treat the Soviet Union too uncritically and are seemingly written by “neutrals in the struggle between freedom and slavery,” as he said in a recent speech to the Association of American Publishers.
Mr. Harkin expressed some skepticism about Mr. Bauer’s claims, and the Undersecretary responded, “I’m shocked that there are people at the table who want to defend the Soviet” record on voting rights.
With that, Mr. Harkin, a Vietnam veteran, pounded the table, calling Mr. Bauer’s comment “the worst McCarthyite tactics I’ve ever seen” and saying he thought Mr. Bauer was impugning his patriotism.
At that point, and again at the hearing’s end, Senator Weicker said Mr. Bauer owed Mr. Harkin an apology. Mr. Bauer responded that he would “examine the record” of the hearing and give an “appropriate” response.
A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 1986 edition of Education Week