News in Brief: A Washington Roundup

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Agency Names Topics For Research Reviews

The Department of Education last week unveiled the first seven topics to be addressed by its new What Works Clearinghouse.

On schedule to be up and running by fall, the clearinghouse will offer educators reviews of the research undergirding educational programs, products, and practices, and give Consumer Reports-inspired ratings on their effectiveness.

First on the list for those reviews, department officials said last week: interventions on beginning reading; curriculum-based programs for raising mathematics achievement in grades K-12; secondary school programs for preventing dropouts; and efforts aimed at improving literacy among adults. The first reports on those topics will be available online as early as fall.

By the spring of next year, the clearinghouse is scheduled to have reviews ready on three more topics: elementary-level, peer-assisted learning programs; interventions aimed at reducing delinquent, disorderly, and violent behavior among young people; and elementary school interventions for English-language learners.

Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, the director of the department's new Institute of Education Sciences, which is overseeing the clearinghouse, said the issues were culled from nominations solicited from the research field and from department staff members. They represent areas that are deemed important to education policy and where some research already exists.

Mr. Whitehurst said the department hopes to review six or seven topics a year, eventually cycling back to some of the same initial topics to keep them updated.

—Debra Viadero

House Votes to Remove 'Last Day' Exemption

The House voted last week to eliminate a controversial measure that has enabled certain teachers to collect extra retirement benefits.

The provision allows some teachers to switch jobs on the last day before retirement, and thus collect both their pensions and Social Security spousal benefits. ("Legislation Would Close Teachers' 'Last Day' Loophole," March 19, 2003.)

Republicans led the effort to end what they call a loophole in the law as part of a larger bill to reduce waste and fraud in the Social Security program. A Democratic amendment to restore the provision was defeated April 3 on the floor by a largely party-line vote of 228-196.

Last year, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report criticizing the Social Security provision. It said that in the past several years, about 4,800 teachers in Texas and Georgia who had worked in districts where they were eligible for pensions and didn't pay into the Social Security system had used certain tactics to maximize their retirement benefits.

"I admire teachers," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said last week. "They are hardworking and incredibly dedicated, as we all know. They are my friends, my sister-in-law, and my next-door neighbor, literally. But keeping open the Texas teacher loophole is terribly unfair."

"This 'last-day exemption,' as it is called, has helped many teachers in Texas and other states protect the Social Security benefits they deserve and that they need to retire," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas.

"[This] is no way to treat hardworking people who have dedicated their entire lives to serving their communities and this nation," he said.

The Senate has not yet taken action on the bill or the last-day exemption.

—Erik W. Robelen

Paige Forms Task Force To Look at Rural Issues

Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced last week that a "high-level" task force will work to address concerns in rural America about implementation of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

The task force will be chaired by Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen, an Idaho native.

Mr. Paige made the announcement at a press event held on Capitol Hill to publicize the new House Rural Education Caucus.

"We at the Department of Education recognize that practically every state has rural districts that face unique challenges," Mr. Paige said in written remarks. "I should know. I grew up in Mississippi, where schools were few and far between."

Lawmakers from mostly rural states and state leaders in Alaska, Montana, Nebraska, and elsewhere have complained that their states face severe hurdles in meeting the mandates in the new law. ("Montana Leads Choir of Rural Concerns Over 'No Child' Law," April 2, 2003.)

—Alan Richard

Modest Changes Seen For Higher Ed. Law

Congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 is likely to bring about only "modest changes to the status quo" in the main federal law affecting colleges and universities, according to a report published by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

But the study by the group, a nonpartisan research and policy organization based in Washington, also cautions that even the slightest tinkering in student financial aid and other policy areas could have broad implications for students trying to cope with the rising cost of college.

The report, "Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Issues and Options," aims to provide a subject-by-subject guide to the major issues at stake in the federal lawmakers' reworking of the higher education law, a process set to begin later this year. The March 27 report focuses on strategies for providing students with greater access to higher education.

Changes to the law are likely to be incremental rather than sweeping, the report says, because of the absence of a particularly strong higher education agenda from Democrats or Republicans in Congress; a prevailing educational focus on precollegiate issues; and a strained federal budget.

Six of the 10 major policy areas identified in the institute' report center on issues of promoting better student access to college and helping them persist through graduation—a logical overview, the report's authors say, given present concerns over rising costs and the anticipated growth among the college-age population.

—Sean Cavanagh

GAO Examines Issues of UNESCO Membership

The General Accounting Office summarized last week issues it believes the United States must consider when it rejoins the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, on Oct. 1. ("Bush Decision to Rejoin UNESCO Applauded," Sept. 25, 2002.)

In a March 28 letter to Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., the GAO notes that the United States had left UNESCO in 1984 because of concerns that the organization wasn't managed well. UNESCO deals with education, among its five program areas. Rep. Hyde, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, had requested the review from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

UNESCO's biennial regular budget has stayed at its current level of $544 million for six years, the review says. The organization has tried to reform its management practices, the GAO says, but the effort needs sustained support from UNESCO leaders and member states.

The letter also says that if the United States is elected to UNESCO's executive board, it will have an opportunity to help with ongoing reform. But it adds that this country would have to campaign for support to get on the board.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Pages 30-31

Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as News in Brief: A Washington Roundup
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