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Major Education Research Programs May Be Combined in Budget, Advocates Say

By Sarah D. Sparks & Alyson Klein — February 06, 2018 4 min read
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The Trump administration’s budget, due out later this month, is likely to combine three significant research programs—the State Longitudinal Data System grants, the Regional Educational Laboratories, and the Comprehensive Centers—advocates with knowledge of the proposal say.

Money for all three programs—nearly $140 million all told—would instead be rolled out to states through formula grants, said Michele McLaughlin, a senior adviser at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations organization.

McLaughlin is also the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a lobbying coalition for the education research community, who learned of the proposal ahead of the budget’s release. Another advocate in the research community with knowledge of the details also confirmed the proposed changes.

“This proposal is nonsensical and does not reflect congressional intent,” said McLaughlin. She noted that the Education Sciences Reform Act, or ESRA, which was last renewed in 2002, keeps all three programs separate. So does a bipartisan bill to reauthorize ESRA—the Strengthening Education Through Research Act—which passed the House in 2014 and the Senate in 2015 but still hasn’t made it over the finish line.

The budget change the Trump administration intends to propose would require a legislative change, she said.

“We are puzzled that the administration continues to pursue this wrongheaded proposal,” she noted.

The U.S. Department of Education declined to comment.

An ‘Odd’ Move

If the proposal passes, it would be an “odd” consolidation, agreed Rebecca Maynard, an education and public-policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance at the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s main research arm. While all three programs work closely with states, she said, “they do very different things, and the actors in the states are very different.”

So what exactly do these three programs do?

• The Regional Education Laboratories, or RELs, are funded at $54 million and include 10 regional centers throughout the country charged with helping states understand data and conduct research. It is part of the Institute of Education Sciences.

• The State Longitudinal Data System program allocates $34.5 million in competitive grants to states to design, develop, and implement data systems that track student learning, teacher performance, and college- and career-readiness. It is also part of IES.

• The Comprehensive Centers are now funded at $51.3 million and help states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act and other K-12 policy initiatives. The centers are part of the Education Department’s main budget. The Comprehensive Centers have strong support from state chiefs, who sent a letter to that effect to members of Congress on the spending committees that oversee education but have not yet responded to this proposal.

The three programs could be difficult to combine. While the state data systems and comprehensive centers are grants, the regional labs’ funding is awarded by contract. And experts have voiced concern about moving either the policy-oriented comprehensive center to IES or the research and data programs to the Education Department’s program arm.

Moreover, while changing three federally run programs to a state block grant would be in keeping with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ interest in decentralizing education, “the logic of putting that in the state, seems to me to not serve state purposes,” said Felice Levine, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association.

“It serves the state purposes to get quality evidence and data and dissemination of that information through some of the best methodologies,” she said. “It seems to me costs would rise and quality would be lower under [the proposed] model.”

Gaining Traction

Although IES was one of the few research agencies to escape largely unscathed in budget cuts proposed last year, this is hardly the first time that the regional labs or comprehensive centers have faced budget reductions or restructuring. However, all three programs proposed for consolidation have gained traction since the Every Student Succeeds Act pushed more responsibility for accountability and school improvement back to the states. States and districts have increasingly partnered through regional labs and the State Longitudinal Data System network for support in implementing the law.

“The big issue is efficiency. It’s really inefficient to have each of the 50 states trying to figure out what the research is and connect to experts on their own,” said Ruth Curran Neild, the director of the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium and a former delegated director of IES.

“Those national networks are connected to each other and able to look beyond the district and state to find the specific expertise they need. ... I don’t think you can assume all states will have that—in fact, we know they don’t have that,” Neild said. “There are a handful [of states] that would do fine, but I think most of them would not.”

Rachel Anderson, the associate director of federal policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, agreed. The campaign, a nonprofit group which studies how states are collecting and using student data to improve education, found that 41 states now provide funding to continue to update their longitudinal-data systems, but the most recent round of grants had shifted from building the data systems to building tools to help educators and policymakers use the data they generated.

The Knowledge Alliance’s McLaughlin also worries that states may not be able to get as much bang for their buck from what could be fairly limited formula grants as they do from these established organizations and programs with long-standing expertise.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Budget May Combine Major Research Programs, Advocates Say

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