Navigating between the pillars of government oversight and academic freedom, congressional lawmakers have begun consideration of a bill that would increase scrutiny of a controversial, federally financed foreign-studies program serving elementary and secondary school teachers across the country.
A measure sponsored by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., would establish a seven-member advisory board to study the performance of those classes, which are provided under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.
One subset of those programs, known as National Resource Centers, has drawn criticism from conservative commentators, who accuse them of pushing left-leaning political agendas on their audiences of K-12 instructors, particularly when the topic is the Middle East.
Supporters of Rep. Hoekstra’s bill, which is awaiting a vote on the House floor, say it would increase oversight of those centers without restricting the free flow of ideas within them—a prime concern among college lobbyists and some federal lawmakers.
“It’s a significant achievement,” Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said of the legislation. He has criticized some of the centers. “Bringing sunlight and public attention to the process has the potential to bring about reforms.”
The legislation, which was approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Sept. 25, provides for an independent advisory board that would report to the secretary of education and to Congress about a range of international programs underwritten through Title VI, including the National Resource Centers.
Those foreign-study programs are scheduled to expire next year, along with other initiatives authorized under the Higher Education Act. Rep. Hoekstra’s proposal is one of several bills introduced by House lawmakers as part of the reauthorization of the act. No legislation on Title VI legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
Title VI supports programs promoting the study of world regions, cultures, and languages. The National Resource Centers typically are housed within academic departments on college campuses, where faculty and staff members arrange free seminars on foreign studies for precollegiate instructors seeking to improve their teaching or knowledge of a particular region.
The Department of Education, which reviews applications from colleges for the program, awarded 120 resource-center grants to institutions in fiscal 2003, worth about $30 million.
Over the past year, critics have complained that seminars staged on several campuses on such topics as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict promoted views almost exclusively critical of U.S. foreign policy. College officials and some teachers who attended the seminars insisted those fears were overblown, and they warned against slapping ideological constraints on schools. (“Middle East Centers Accused of Bias in Teaching,” Aug. 6, 2003.)
Under the bill, the advisory board would be made up of a mix of college officials and representatives of cultural organizations, local education agencies, and private citizens. Two members would be appointed from federal agencies with “national security responsibilities,” according to the bill, while other panelists would be appointed by members of both parties of Congress.
The advisory board would have no control over funding for Title VI programs, and it could propose federal legislation only with the permission of the president.
“It is purely advisory,” Mr. Hoekstra said in an interview last week. The board would “give feedback as to the direction of the program,” he said, “and maybe some areas that could be improved.”
Several changes backed by college lobbyists have been made during hearings on the bill. One states that the board could not “mandate, direct, or control” any institution’s curriculum or instruction.
Miriam A. Kazanjian, a consultant to the Coalition for International Education, said the changes have eased some concerns of college officials. But many in higher education still believe the bill would give the advisory board too much power to launch investigations of participating institutions.
“It could create an atmosphere of intimidation,” said Ms. Kazanjian, whose group is affiliated with the American Council on Education, a Washington organization representing 1,800 colleges and universities. “We don’t think it was Congress’ intention to create an investigative board, but it could be interpreted that way.”