School & District Management

Federal Education Research Reauthorization Hits Roadblock

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 05, 2013 5 min read
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So, apparently even a low-key, mostly technical education bill can’t keep enough bipartisan support in Congress to stay alive this session: This fall’s negotiations over the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act, the federal law governing education research, have officially died.

There was a lot of hope in the research community this fall, after the House’s hearing on ESRA reauthorization issues, and the word went out that staff on both sides were collaborating on a bill. While House education committee leaders agreed on most of the practical policies in the reauthorization, talks broke down over the spending authorization levels for the Institute of Education Sciences. For more on the political ins and outs of the breakdown, check out my colleague Alyson Klein’s breaking coverage over at Politics K-12.

“It signals the dysfunction of Washington, that even a relatively straightforward commitment on the part of the federal government—to actually understanding what works in education and providing that back to practitioners and policymakers—is caught in this vortex of disagreement which has nothing to do with the value of IES and education research and everything to do with politics and other things,” said Timothy F.C. Knowles, the director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who has been working on ESRA reauthorization recommendations. “It’s just like, come on people! IES is our core apparatus for understanding what works in schools, and our elected officials are so dug in and polarized, they apparently aren’t able to make even a sensible decision. This is what I’d call low-hanging fruit. It’s frustrating.”

Vivian Tseng, the vice president of the programs for the William T. Grant Foundation, agreed that she was surprised education research wasn’t easier to move through reauthorization. “Unlike [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] there weren’t any big serious problems with ESRA, so it’s disappointing. It is disappointing that not much is getting done in Congress,” she said.

Not all education watchers are discouraged by the impasse, however.

“There’s a lot of good news packed into there,” said former IES Director Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, noting Democrats and Republicans on the House committee staff “had agreed on almost everything. The authorization level is a leadership issue, not something in the Education and Workforce Committee staff.”

Whitehurst, now at the Brookings Institute, said he is confident the reauthorization negotiations will come back online in the spring, after the next round of budget negotiations are settled.

“Of course there’s frustration: People were working very hard on this and victory was snatched out of their hands by something that was totally irrelevant to what they were working on,” he said. Education and social programs rarely or never actually receive federal money at the level authorized by their legislation, he noted, “so this was obviously all about the principle” that House Republican leaders do not want to increase any program’s authorization levels.

But it could have been much worse, Whitehurst added: “There could have been very partisan disagreements, and that didn’t happen. I’m very encouraged that there could be bipartisan agreement on the fundamentals and there was no prospect of dramatic restructuring, which would have been terrible.

“I’m still confident the [ESRA] reauthorization will be passed in the next year; it may be the only education bill passed in the next year,” Whitehurst said.

The Senate never held a hearing on the bill, and Gerald Sroufe, government relations director for the American Educational Research Association, said most are not expecting a quick revival from the other chamber, though the Aspen Institute still plans to hold a briefing on the role of the federal government in education research at the Senate Hart Building next Monday.

Muddling Along

And in the meantime, many education watchers note if you have to have a reauthorization bill stall out, ESRA isn’t a bad choice; there were few major structural complaints about the existing law, and IES Director John Q. Easton has previously shown he’s willing to realign research work from within the existing law.

“I think education researchers can still do a lot with IES,” Tseng said. "[Director] John Easton has prioritized research practice partnerships, through the request for proposals and [regional educational lab] contracts, and that work is promising to help us understand how to support people in successful partnerships to produce rigorous work that really supports state and district needs. I think we can keep making progress. I think that many of the issues raised are things we can still work on outside of reauthorization.”

Dean Gerdeman, a managing director at the American Institutes of Research and director of the REL Midwest, said a reauthorization would be useful to clarify the roles and coordination of the regional labs and comprehensive assistance centers, among other things, but he agreed that many changes discussed in reauthorization hearings and outside discussions could be taken up under the existing law.

Moreover, “The optimistic side is by slowing it down, not rushing it through this year, [ESRA reauthorization discussions] might help conversations about the connections between ESEA and ESRA to continue, and we might benefit from the continuation of those conversations,” said Gina Burkhardt, vice president of AIR. She would still like to see a combined reauthorization for both the education research and basic federal K-12 education laws, though she and others admitted that’s a long shot.

Both Burkhardt and Knowles warned, though, that momentum for education research reauthorization could be easily lost if Congress doesn’t take up the issue again soon. “The starts and stops not only lose momentum and support and people’s enthusiasm for it, but it might also lose some of the good recommendations that have been coming out around that,” Burkhardt said.

The delay also sends a message to educators that “is not reassuring,” Knowles said. “The opportunity to reauthorize is the opportunity to align federal research priorities with where the nation’s schools are, and to not do that is a huge opportunity missed.”

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest

Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest

Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.