If influential Senate lawmakers have their way, the Department of Education’s primary research office will get its long-awaited face-lift this year.
The news came last month as the Senate held its first—and only—planned hearing aimed at remaking and reauthorizing the office of educational research and improvement. The $444 million-a-year OERI oversees much of the research, statistics gathering, and technical help subsidized by the department.
Buffeted by critics and periods of level funding, the research office has operated without specific congressional authority for three years. It came a step closer to getting reauthorized in May, when the House gave bipartisan approval to a bill revamping it. (“Research Bill Clears House Without Fuss,” May 8, 2002.)
Senators have been less clear on their timetable for taking up the matter. That uncertainty left observers wondering whether a legislative revision would emerge before Congress adjourns for campaigning before the November elections.
Last week, however, Jim Manley, the press secretary to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the committee that oversees the Education Department, said committee aides plan to draft their own rewrite later this month.
The need to pass a reauthorization bill quickly was a message echoed by witnesses at the hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
“We do badly need a reauthorization,” Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the assistant secretary of education in charge of the OERI, said at the June 25 hearing. Without that renewal, he said, it’s difficult to manage the agency, hire people, and push for federal budget changes.
Some of the political urgency behind the bill now also stems from the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the revision of the federal government’s centerpiece K-12 legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The new ESEA requires school systems to rely on “scientifically based research” in choosing most of the programs and policies paid for with federal money. A reworked OERI could be key to that effort.
At the same time, though, the Senate hearing also pointed up issues that could dog smooth passage of an OERI reauthorization bill. One is the role of the National Center for Education Statistics. Under the House-passed bill, the statistics agency, which now operates somewhat independently, would answer to the director of a new Academy of Education Sciences.
“This could cause damage by creating the possibility, or at least the appearance, of manipulation of important education statistics,” Faye Taylor, Tennessee’s education commissioner, told the Senate panel. She spoke on behalf of the Education Leaders Council, a national network of state officials.
Ms. Taylor and other witnesses also urged lawmakers to give the National Assessment Governing Board new responsibility for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program.
Now, the independent, citizen-led board sets policy for the testing program. However, the statistics agency, answering to the secretary of education, administers NAEP, along with numerous other programs. That makes for an “ambiguous” relationship, witnesses said, and the House’s proposal to put the statistics agency under the purview of the proposed new academy’s director, they argued, could further blur those authority lines.
“We believe the new demands on NAEP require that it have greater independence, and we would like to suggest that the best way for that to happen is for you to transfer the responsibility for the national assessment to the governing board,” said Michael T. Nettles, the governing board’s vice chairman.
Another witness called for bolstering the department’s technical-assistance system and aligning it more closely with the new requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Whatever form the Senate’s vision of the OERI renewal takes, the aim, several senators said, is to improve the quality of federal education research.
“The federal office of educational research and improvement should be the first click of the mouse for every educator in America as the place to learn what works for our children and what does not,” Sen. Kennedy said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Senate May Vote on Overhaul Of OERI Before Fall Elections