Senators Ask G.A.O. To Investigate Grants For a Political Taint

By Robert Rothman — October 14, 1992 7 min read

WASHINGTON--Members of Congress have asked the General Accounting Office to investigate charges that two Education Department awards competitions may have been tainted by political considerations.

In one, a top department official overrode the recommendations of a peer-review panel and decided to award a $6 million grant to a competing bidder.

The award to the McKinney (Tex.) Independent School District, expected to be announced this week, would establish a demonstration project to show how technology can help boost student achievement in core subjects.

A separate award, announced last week, would provide $23 million over five years to Ohio State University to develop and operate a new national clearinghouse for mathematics and science education.

Shirley M. Malcom, the head of the directorate for education and human-resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which lost the clearinghouse competition, said the process appeared to have been skewed, perhaps for political reasons.

President Bush was expected to speak in Columbus, Ohio, late last week, but it was unclear whether he would use the occasion to announce the clearinghouse award.

“There is an odor,’' Ms. Malcom said. “Something is strange.’'

Diane S. Ravitch, the assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement, vehemently denied that the upcoming Presidential election played a role in the awards decisions. In both cases, she said, the awards were made on the merits of the proposals.

“My professional reputation means a whole lot more to me than the election does,’' she said. “I will leave with that reputation intact.’'

‘Boundary Breaking’

The two projects, mandated by Congress, are among the largest ever funded by the department’s office of educational research and improvement.

The $6 million technology-demonstration program, authorized in 1988, is aimed at integrating technology into instruction throughout a school.

More than 100 districts applied for the grant, according to department officials.

The McKinney project is “boundary breaking,’' according to Sue Cleghorn, the Texas district’s assistant superintendent for instruction.

“It’s totally innovative in its approach,’' she said, “yet built on very sound instructional philosophies.’'

Under their plan, the district will establish a 250-pupil “21st century one-room schoolhouse.’'

In addition to serving as a model high-technology school, the school will also be a community center that will be open from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., six days a week, and a teacher-training institution for the district.

“If you go there in two years,’' said Francie M. Alexander, the deputy assistant secretary of ïŸåŸòŸéŸ for policy and planning, “you will see, yes, a demonstration was established that others can look at and learn from.’'

An Unorthodox Process

But the way the proposal was selected was unorthodox, Ms. Ravitch acknowledged.

Unlike the winners of all other previous grant competitions during her 15-month tenure, she said, the McKinney proposal did not receive the highest scores from the peer-review panels that analyzed the bids. In fact, she said, it was fourth.

But the highest-scoring proposal--which she declined to identify--was “weak,’' she said.

“I read the proposal, and, frankly, found it very poor,’' Ms. Ravitch said. “I wrote a note to the program director and said, ‘When the $6 million is spent, what will there be to show for it? I don’t get it.’''

Although she initially intended to back the peer reviewers’ recommendation, Ms. Ravitch said she reopened the review process last month after members of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s staff complained that a bidder from the Massachusetts Democrat’s home state had been treated unfairly.

The Massachusetts group, Ms. Ravitch said, had not earned the top score from the peer-review panels that had examined the proposals.

Upon closer examination, she said, “I learned that the [O.E.R.I.] staff was concerned about the quality of the proposals over all.’'

After meeting with department officials, Ms. Ravitch said, she decided to invoke her authority to select the grantee, and she picked the McKinney district after reading the top seven proposals.

She added that five of her six top aides also chose the McKinney proposal as the best. The sixth aide, she said, recommended sending the award money back to the Treasury.

Ms. Ravitch denied that political concerns swayed them. If she had wanted to make a politically motivated decision, she said, she would have selected a bidder from a state whose senator oversees the agency in Congress.

“My uppermost political concern is what is in the best interest of O.E.R.I.,’' the assistant secretary said. “You don’t offend the senators that sit on the authorizing or appropriations committees.’'

But the losing bidders remain unconvinced.

“I didn’t realize it would be a political football,’' said Timothy G. Murnane, an intergovernmental relations staff associate for the Massachusetts Corporation for Education Telecommunications, that state’s bidder.

To get an impartial view of the process, Senator Kennedy and colleagues have asked the G.A.O. to determine if it was conducted properly.

Something ‘That Makes Sense’

The award for the science and math clearinghouse, meanwhile, has also stirred controversy.

Mandated by Congress in 1990, the clearinghouse is intended to serve as a national repository for information on programs in the field.

Michael Klapper, the principal investigator for the project, said Ohio State University is unusually well suited to operate it, since it has one of the most comprehensive library and computer operations in the country.

Using digital technology, he noted, the project’s officials plan to provide information to teachers and students, as well as to researchers and administrators.

The university also can draw on the resources of the national research center on science teaching and learning, and the Education Resources Information Center clearinghouse on science, math, and environmental education, both of which are housed at Ohio State.

“I feel the university has the infrastructure to do this correctly,’' Mr. Klapper said. “Given the chance, we could put something together that makes sense.’'

‘Absurd and False’ Charge

But the university’s sole competitor in the bidding process, the A.A.A.S., contends that the deck may have been stacked against it, and has asked the G.A.O. for an investigation.

As evidence, Ms. Malcom said that association officials faced a long list of questions from the department and had little time to respond.

One of the most controversial questions, based on information from the department’s inspector general, stated that the National Science Teachers Association, a principal subcontractor on the project, had a “cash-flow problem’’ and was a bad financial risk.

Bill G. Aldridge, the executive director of the N.S.T.A., called that assertion “absurd and false.’'

In a letter to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, Mr. Aldridge noted that the association currently runs the Presidential Awards program under contract to the National Science Foundation, along with several other grants from the Education Department and the N.S.F., and has had “hundreds’’ of federal grants and contracts over the past 48 years.

“We have always paid our bills, maintain excellent credit, and have full annual audits by the federal government,’' Mr. Aldridge wrote.

He said that the charge may have been politically motivated, since he has been a vocal critic of President Bush and has written an editorial in an association newspaper endorsing Mr. Bush’s Democratic challenger, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Ms. Malcom said that the review process for the clearinghouse contract left the A.A.A.S. little opportunity to refute the charges.

As a result, she said, the association agreed to drop the N.S.T.A. as a subcontractor, but left open the option of adding it again later.

Ms. Ravitch explained that the association’s decision effectively disqualified its bid for the contract. She was left with the choice, she said, of selecting Ohio State or no one, since the inspector general had recommended against the A.A.A.S.

But she disputed the idea that Presidential politics lay behind the award, even though President Bush was expected to speak in Columbus late last week.

“Anybody who thinks Ohio will change its vote because of a $3.5 million grant to Ohio State is silly,’' she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1992 edition of Education Week as Senators Ask G.A.O. To Investigate Grants For a Political Taint