A compromise measure to restructure the Department of Education’s research programs sailed uncontested through the House and the Senate last week. The bill calls for creation of a new research institute that supporters say would help improve the quality of federally financed education analysis.
Thought to be a dead issue only a few months ago, the legislation reconfiguring the department’s office of educational research and improvement is expected to win President Bush’s signature as well. It’s the only major education bill passed this year, during a time when national security and the economy dominate lawmakers’ concerns.
Under the final version of the measure, the OERI, now funded at $444 million, would become the “Academy of Education Sciences,” a more autonomous agency. Three separate centers—for research, evaluation, and statistics—would be included under the academy. Rather than being headed by an assistant secretary, as is the case now with the OERI, the institute would instead have a director, appointed by the president for a six-year term, and a board of directors. (“Senate Panel Passes Federal Research Bill,” Oct. 2, 2002.)
Called the Education Sciences Reform Act, the measure would dictate that all federally financed education research meet “scientifically based” standards, in language that parallels the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The academy’s director would propose longer- term priorities for research, subject to approval by the board of directors.
A Late Flurry
Though the bill moved quickly in its final stages, passage of the legislation came three years after the OERI was due to be reauthorized.
While the House passed its original OERI bill in May, the legislation appeared to stall. When that stall ended, lawmakers quickly fashioned the final product.
Even before the Senate approved its original version of the reauthorization late last month, members of the two houses had begun to work out compromises in the hope that a final version would clear both chambers quickly before the homestretch of the midterm- election season. It passed the Senate on a voice vote Oct. 15 and the House followed suit on Oct. 16.
The bill “addresses what I have come to know as serious shortcomings in the field of educational research, including the funding and dissemination of questionable studies, programs, and practices, and an overly bureaucratic office with no real sense of mission,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who was the chief sponsor of the House legislation.
James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, said the bill would continue the education improvements put forth by the No Child Left Behind Act, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which mandates a slew of new testing and other accountability measures.
“If you have a stronger accountability system, what you need to follow up with is a strong system of solutions,” said Mr. Kohlmoos, whose group represents education research centers. “We look at the new education sciences bill as a bill focusing on solutions.”
He added: “Not many people are interested in it, but this is a vital bill.”
The Bush administration had already created a new office within the Department of Education that will handle some evaluation duties, called the “policy and program studies services.” (“Unsafe Label Will Trigger School Choice,” this issue.)
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said the new legislation would not affect the changes made by the administration’s team. The new policy office “will become the core during the transition to the [Academy of Education Sciences],” he said in an interview.
The department’s new office of innovation and improvement is also expected to handle some of the evaluation responsibilities. Mr. Whitehurst added that the new legislation would give him and other Education Department leaders more flexibility.
“It’s a much better bill than the current statute, and provides a lot more flexibility for the department,” he said. “I think it removes significant impediments to us becoming a world-class research agency, and removes any excuses for failure.”
But Chester E. Finn Jr., who held Mr. Whitehurst’s position during the Reagan administration, pointed out that the research office has undergone numerous restructurings and name changes in past reauthorizations, with significant improvement, he said, in the department’s research capability.
And Mr. Finn said he did not see enough drastic changes in the current legislation, such as overhauling the federally financed regional education laboratories and the Educational Resources Information Center, or ERIC, clearinghouses.
“Odds are, most money will continue to go where it’s already gone,” said Mr. Finn, who is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington research organization. “There’s less here than meets the eye.”
The bill does not offer a permanent authorization to one ERIC clearinghouse, the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, a 4-year-old organization that studies school design and innovative facilities, as well as needs for renovations and new schools.
Although many education groups had lobbied for its inclusion as a permanent fixture of the ERIC system, some members of Congress were adamantly opposed to such a move because they viewed inclusion as a step toward a greater federal role in helping to pay for school construction.
The clearinghouse can still receive funding on a year-to-year basis from the Education Department’s discretionary funds.