Shifts in Partnership: N.I.E. and the Research Centers

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The proportion of the budget of the National Institute of Education (NIE) devoted to the eight regional laboratories and nine research centers has increased over the years as NIE funding has declined.

Originally there were 32 labs and centers established between 1964 and 1966 under the Cooperative Research Act of 1954 and subsequent amendments.

The number dwindled due to budgetary constraints during the Vietnam War and following the "purchase" of most of the labs and centers from the United States Office of Education (USOE) by NIE, but no lab or center has been closed since 1975, according to Joseph Schneider, executive director of the Council for Educational Development and Research.

The operating budget for NIE, the largest of the federal agencies involved in education-related research, has dropped from $136 million in 1973 to $53.4 million in 1982, according to a budget analyst in the agency.

In 1973, NIE's first year, funding for the labs and centers was $34 million, 25 percent of the total.

In fiscal year 1982, NIE is scheduled to receive $53 million, $28 million (or 52 percent) of which will go to the labs and centers.

According to Marc S. Tucker, who headed a task force to oversee the transition of the labs and centers from their pre-NIE arrangement in USOE, NIE inherited the problem of providing "large amounts of research funds to large-scale institutional commitments for an indefinite period," Mr. Tucker said.

As he argued in a 1975 paper on the laboratories and centers, their mission and quality were a matter of dispute from the start, and the effort to open those institutional commitments to competitive bidding has been talked about since at least 1971.

In 1971, the U.S. Commissioner of Education instituted what was known as the policy of "institutional maturity," described in a paper by Charles Frye, a staff member of USOE's then-National Center for Educational Research and Development.

Under this plan, the government would cease to provide institutional support for laboratories and centers judged to be at an "independent stage" (maturity) by a review panel of education consultants.

The work of this group of more than 70 consultants was continued after the creation of NIE by Congress in August of 1972.

"NIE was created in 1972 with an awful lot of institutions that virtually expected to exist in perpetuity," Mr. Tucker said.

"The idea was to review what was in place, to not cut off a lot of work in progress but to keep investing in it until its value was realized, and then have the institutions meanwhile compete for new awards."

A task force on "Lab-Center Transition" was set up within NIE under the direction of Mr. Tucker to continue this process.

But because funding in the early years of NIE went down instead of up, the laboratories and centers felt there would not be enough money for them to survive under a competitive policy, Mr. Tucker said.

"There was a real conflict between the institute's management and the directors of the labs and centers," he said.

To help resolve the conflict, in 1976 Congress established a panel of educators to review and report on the 17 regional education laboratories and research and development centers.

The panel strongly endorsed the concept behind the labs and centers and found all except two "ready for long-term relationships with NIE" The panel also supported the "fundamental distinction of purpose" between labs and centers--that is, that centers should address education issues of national scope and labs should address problems defined by their regional constituents.

The panel recommended that NIE enter into long-term contracts with seven of the nine centers and seven of the eight labs.

The work of the panel, Mr. Tucker said, "was an attempt to come to grips with many legitimate criticisms from the labs and centers about how they were being managed by NIE."

The policy that emerged was that institutions found worthy of long-term support to provide stability would get it, he said, but they would be subject to periodic review.

"My views on this have been terribly consistent, and I've worked for both a lab and the NIE," Mr. Tucker said. "I don't believe it makes sense for organizations to be supported indefinitely."

"At a minimum," he added, "when it is decided that building some form of institution is necessary, it ought to be reviewed periodically to see if a need still exists and if a particular institution is doing the best job, and the best way to do that is through open competition."

But he disagrees with Mr. Curran's technique. "The only responsible way to do it is with an eye toward preserving and making good on sunk investment," he said, "and arranging for an orderly transition."

Without that kind of concern, he said, "what you're doing is simply terminating a very important set of resources and putting nothing in their place."

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