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Lawmakers Want to Reauthorize a Major Education Research Law. What Stands in the Way?

By Libby Stanford & Sarah D. Sparks — December 12, 2023 7 min read
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, joins Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, as Starbucks founder Howard Schultz answers questions about the company's actions during an ongoing employee unionizing campaign, at the Capitol in Washington, on March 29, 2023.
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Congress is taking another swing at a long overdue update to a key law governing education research, but it might have a long way to go before it passes.

The Senate’s education committee on Dec. 12 voted to approve what would be the first-ever reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act. The two-decade-old law created the U.S. Education Department’s independent research agency, the Institute for Education Sciences, and set randomized controlled studies as the gold standard for education research.

The latest attempt at reauthorization, titled the Advancing Research in Education Act and introduced by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., would modernize the law to address changes in technology, data collection needs, and the issues impacting schools.

The IES oversees the National Center for Education Statistics, which is charged with collecting and analyzing data related to student demographics and academic outcomes from tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, as well as the national centers for Education Research, Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, and Special Education Research.

Some of the most notable changes included in the 181-page bill are:

  • A requirement that the National Center for Education Statistics commissioner develops a new, accurate way to measure poverty rates other than the percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals, as that measure has become less reliable, especially as more states pass universal free meal programs;
  • Authorizing funding for a new data-innovation grant that will help states find more efficient and effective ways to collect information; and
  • A requirement that IES increase the participation of researchers from historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions in data collection and research projects. A 2022 report on the research agency found less than 15 percent of IES-funded research project grants went to researchers of color.

At a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee meeting to mark up the bill on Dec. 12, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also added a set of amendments, approved by the committee, that would direct IES to research student cell phone use both inside and outside of the classroom, as student use of social media has come under scrutiny and schools have started restricting cellphone use in an effort to minimize distractions.

“This bill will ensure that high-quality and timely research gets into the hands of teachers and principals,” Sanders said.

A long time coming

The bill next needs to pass the full Senate before heading to the U.S. House. Based on its history, the bill may have a difficult time making it to President Joe Biden’s desk, even with bipartisan backing.

ESRA has been crucial to national efforts to collect information about schools and learning; administer national and international tests; and support research on teaching, learning, and education policy. But fights over larger and higher-profile education and student privacy laws have hamstrung prior attempts to reauthorize the research law.

Congress passed ESRA as a companion to the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

It was due to be reauthorized in 2007, alongside NCLB, but fights over that law’s reauthorization derailed efforts to update the narrower measure.

The last major push to reauthorize the research law, in 2016, foundered because members of Congress also wanted to update the even more outdated Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. FERPA rules governing student data collection and use deeply affect how education research must be conducted.

Although the Education Department has updated privacy regulations since then, Congress still has not reauthorized FERPA itself, meaning that 50-year-old policy could remain a roadblock to approving a new version of the education research law.

Such delays have complicated IES’ operations.

The research agency’s advisory board has had difficulty maintaining a quorum; it met in September for the first time since 2016 and has not officially approved updated research priorities for IES since 2010. The outgoing IES director, Mark Schneider, has never worked under board-approved research priorities.

IES has also had less control over its $73.5 million program budget than other agencies that support education research, like the National Science Foundation. Congress only separated IES’s program administration budget from that of the overall Education Department in 2022, allowing it to support its own hiring and contracting.

IES receives about 1,000 research proposals each year. In 2022, the national academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found significant disparities in which researchers were funded. For example, nonwhite researchers led only 13 percent of research projects funded in the 2021 grant cycles for the national centers for education research and special education research.

The reauthorization aims to address this by requiring that IES work to increase the participation of researchers from HBCUs, tribal universities, and minority-serving universities.

In addition to its usual potential hurdles, this time around, the bill has the potential to get caught up in debates that aren’t directly related to education research.

After a lengthy debate during the Dec. 12 committee meeting, senators passed an amendment that would prohibit federal funding to support education research at any university that “allows” antisemitism. Sen. Roger Marshall, the Kansas Republican who sponsored the amendment, said he would change its wording before the bill hits the Senate floor to prohibit research at any university that “promotes” antisemitism, as other lawmakers, including Sanders, Romney, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., argued that the initial language is too broad and could unfairly penalize researchers.

The amendment is largely a response to reports of rising incidents of antisemitism at colleges and universities and a high-profile House hearing last week at which the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology equivocated on whether calls for genocide of Jews on campus would violate their institutions’ rules.

Researchers say more support is needed in reauthorization

Since its introduction, the bill has been the subject of scrutiny from researchers who argue that it doesn’t go far enough to support the “development” part of research and development.

“IES has an opportunity to play a really significant role in taking breakthrough basic research and testing its deployment, seeing what works, whether it’s new technologies, AI-enabled education models, or even different education practices and pedagogies in a variety of settings,” said Dan Correa, CEO of the Federation of American Scientists, which joined more than 70 organizations in signing a letter to the Senate education committee urging more support of development activities.

Specifically, the groups would like to see the IES have more flexibility to launch development projects outside of its standard processes.

Principals call for more consideration of school safety

The National Association of Secondary School Principals’ National Principal Recovery Network also called on the committee to add support for research related to school safety to the bill.

The network, a coalition of principals focused on school safety and recovery from school shootings and other violence, sent a letter to the committee calling for specific funding for research on school safety, school shootings, and violence prevention.

School shootings have grown in scale and scope over the past 20 years. So far this year, there have been 37 school shootings with injuries or deaths, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.

“It’s great that [Congress] is looking to reauthorize ESRA and I think they’re looking to support many worthwhile areas, but it really does fall down in regards to providing some support for school safety, prevention, and recovery,” said Michael Bennett, a former assistant principal of Columbia High School near Albany, N.Y., which experienced a shooting on campus in 2004 when Bennett was principal.

Bennett, who is now the assistant superintendent of the Greenville Central School District in Greenville, N.Y., said that he and his former Columbia High School colleagues continue to deal with the aftermath of the shooting 20 years later. More federal funding to support research into the lasting impacts of school shootings; school shooting recovery; the impacts of “swatting hoaxes,” in which schools have to navigate false reports of school shootings, and other issues related to school violence would help schools prepare for and move on from shootings when they happen, he said.

“What we’d like to be able to see is have some researchers come in and follow and track and start to give us … more hard numbers and data on how to support school districts and what are the things that principals and school communities are going to need following a horrific event like the school shooting,” Bennett said.

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