Measure Seeks More E.D. Authority Over Research Agenda

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WASHINGTON--A Senate subcommittee last week approved legislation to reauthorize the office of educational research and improvement, adopting a bill that would give the Education Department more authority over the research agenda than its House counterpart would.

The political battle over who will control that agenda will ultimately be fought in a House-Senate conference where S 286 will be reconciled with HR 856, which was passed by the House on Aug. 2. (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1993.)

Many observers believe the O.E.R.I.'s work has been overly influenced by the political whims of whatever administration is in power.

That image, combined with the perception that education research does not have the practical value of other programs, has made the O.E.R.I. relatively unpopular on Capitol Hill and led lawmakers to cut--and assert more control over--its budget.

The key controversy in the reauthorization debate is over how much authority a new board will be given over the O.E.R.I. HR 856 would give the board more power than S 286, under which it would play an advisory role.

Under the House bill, the board would even help the President appoint the O.E.R.I.'s assistant secretary, currently Sharon P. Robinson.

The House would give the board the power to set research priorities, by drafting five-, 10-, and 15-year plans. Under S 286, the assistant secretary would draft a six-year plan with input from the board.

While the Secretary of Education would pick board members in both versions, HR 856 names groups, such as parents and practitioners, that are to be represented, and specifies that certain organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences, would nominate some of the 18 members.

An amendment adopted last week by the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities moves the Senate bill a half-step closer to the House version, adding that the Secretary would appoint board members who are researchers and educators, "giving due consideration'' to nominations by education groups. S 286 calls for a nine-member board.

Under HR 286, the board could hire its own staff and review any grant or contract. The peer-review process for research awards would be altered, leaving decisions that are now made in private open to public scrutiny.

The board would use a system of peer review in developing standards for soliciting and conducting research under the House bill, while the Senate version simply states that the board should advise the assistant secretary on research standards.

The Administration has carefully avoided taking a clear public position on the legislation, preferring to work behind the scenes with lawmakers in both chambers. But many observers said the Administration prefers the Senate bill.

'Basic Thrust' Similar

"We're pleased with the progress of the House on the way they reshaped the governing board,'' said an aide to Ms. Robinson. "The differences are not insurmountable. The bills are similar in the basic thrust of the office.''

Both bills would organize the federal research laboratories and centers, which perform the bulk of the O.E.R.I.'s work, into five thematic institutes or directorates. The setup is patterned after the National Institutes of Health, as recommended by an influential study on the O.E.R.I. done in 1992 by the N.A.S.

While the House and Senate institutes have different names, the research areas they cover are the same: early-childhood issues, postsecondary and adult education, at-risk students, education governance, and curriculum and assessment.

The House bill would authorize $20 million for each institute; the Senate earmarks $70 million over all, granting more funds to the directorate on curriculum and assessment.

S 286 includes a scheme for dividing funds if appropriations are insufficient for all the institutes, a plan that again favors the curriculum institute; HR 856 has no such plan.

S 286 would allow the O.E.R.I. to double the number of regional laboratories it funds, from 10 to 20.

Under the Senate bill, the labs would be assigned what lobbyists call an increased responsibility for technical assistance. Such aid would be provided under the House bill by a new system of "extension agents.''

Both bills would allow the O.E.R.I. to fund more field-initiated research, for which the agency has received no more than $1 million per year in recent years. HR 856 would require that 15 percent of each directorate's budget be spent on such research; the Senate subcommittee last week raised the mandate in S 285 from 15 percent to at least one-third.

Before voting unanimously to approve S 286, the Senate panel:

  • Dropped a school-technology program, which is to be included in either the Administration's "goals 2000: educate America act'' or next year's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act;
    Scaled back a proposed research-dissemination network for teachers; and
    Increased the spending level authorized for dissemination efforts from $1 million to $5 million.

The subcommittee also approved the Administration's proposed "safe schools act,'' which would authorize $175 million over two years for school districts with high rates of violence.

S 1125 was introduced earlier this year and later incorporated into the Administration's proposal for the E.S.E.A. A Senate aide said the program was separated from the E.S.E.A. bill because Congress appropriated $20 million for the act should it be passed by next April 1. The House is expected to follow suit.

Vol. 13, Issue 08

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