K-12 Math, Science Grantmaker for NSF Under Scrutiny

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One of the federal government's most prominent grantmakers to K-12 science and math education has come under clouds of suspicion and controversy in recent weeks.

Two separate matters have raised questions about Luther S. Williams, the assistant director of education and human resources at the National Science Foundation, who has held that job since 1990.

Luther S. Williams

As a result of one of his actions, a House committee chairman had ordered the NSF to explain by late last week how the agency divvies up its money.

Mr. Williams this year oversees about $374 million in funding to precollegiate programs, and for years has shepherded the implementation of dozens of state and citywide reform initiatives in science education.

The most serious questions involve allegations that Mr. Williams took actions in which he had conflicts of interest, in violation of federal laws and NSF regulations. The science foundation's inspector general uncovered the alleged wrongdoing, and those findings have been referred to the Department of Justice for possible investigation and prosecution.

Honoraria Questioned

The inspector general's report does not name the NSF executive involved. A knowledgeable source in the education community in Washington, however, confirmed that Mr. Williams is the official.

In auditing a science foundation grant that supported a conference, NSF investigators identified an honorarium payment to the NSF executive for speaking at the conference. Neither the conference nor its sponsoring organization was named. The report concludes that the executive had also received several honoraria payments for speaking to institutions that receive funding from the federal agency, and that "his talks related in substantial part to his duties as an NSF employee." That would mean, in effect, that Mr. Williams was paid twice for the same speeches if the allegations are true.

In addition, according to the inspector general's report, the unnamed executive illegally "participated personally and substantially in the approval of an NSF grant to an organization with which he was negotiating prospective employment." The violations could result in civil or criminal charges, says the inspector general's report, which was released late last year.

Mr. Williams, who remains in his job, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mary Hanson, a spokeswoman for the agency, said, "It's inappropriate or presumptuous to reach any conclusions on matters like this until any investigation is completed and the facts are in, which they are not."

Trouble Over Letter

A separate issue that has drawn scrutiny to Mr. Williams concerns a letter he wrote to the state school board in California criticizing a recent board decision on math standards. The letter elicited protests from Capitol Hill and elsewhere and forced Mr. Williams' boss to follow up with a clarifying letter to the California board.

In December, Mr. Williams wrote to Yvonne W. Larsen, the board's president, that the board's action to emphasize the acquisition of basic skills in statewide K-7 math standards "is, charitably, shortsighted and detrimental to the long-term mathematical literacy of children in California."

He suggested that the NSF's more than $50 million in funding to six California districts could be withdrawn if districts followed the standards. "You must surely understand that the foundation cannot support individual school systems that embark on a course that substitutes computational proficiencies for a commitment to deep, balanced, mathematical learning," he wrote. ("Calif. Education Officials Approve Back-to-Basics Standards in Math," Jan. 14, 1998.)

In responding to Mr. Williams' letter, Ms. Larsen wrote that she believed the adopted standards were not at odds with NSF-funded projects. "I did not find the letter either helpful or particularly purposeful," she added.

Some members of Congress were outraged. Five Republican members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, two from California, wrote to President Clinton arguing the Williams letter "crosses the line between federal and state jurisdiction of local education matters."

Mr. Clinton responded to the congressmen in a letter and said that White House attention prompted the agency's director, Neal F. Lane, to try to clarify the NSF's position. "I believe [Mr. Williams' letter] can easily be and in some instances has been misconstrued," Mr. Lane wrote Ms. Larsen.

Mr. Lane also said in the Jan. 8 letter that it is not NSF policy "to prescribe particular standards for mathematics and science education" and that the foundation does not regard the state board's action on standards as grounds for cutting off funding to "critically important projects in California school districts."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., the chairman of the House Science Committee, wrote to Mr. Lane Feb. 5, saying Mr. Williams' letter was "not acceptable." He then called on Mr. Lane to provide, by the end of last week, "a detailed explanation" of how the NSF makes awards to states and cities for education reform and the criteria it uses to examine state standards in making those awards.

A spokesman for Mr. Lane said he intended to meet last week's deadline.

Both the letter and the conflict-of-interest allegations "raise questions about the use of the office and official communications," said Bill Lucia, the executive director of the California school board. "It certainly becomes difficult [for Mr. Williams] to be as effective."

Web Only

Web Resources
  • Read Luther S. Williams' biography from the NSF Web site.
  • Read about the National Science Foundation's Systemic Initiatives on the NSF education and human resources directorate's Web site.
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