Education Funding

Math, Science Grants In Federal Cross Hairs

By Michelle Galley — February 11, 2004 5 min read
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The White House recommended last week stripping $140 million for math and science education research away from the National Science Foundation and giving it to the U.S. Department of Education. But supporters of the NSF, including congressional Republicans, vowed to rebuff the plan.

Critics charged that the proposed move of the mathematics- and science- partnership grants was an attempt by the Bush administration to set the research agenda for how those subjects are taught in the nation’s classrooms.

“They would be the ones making decisions on grants,” Jodi Peterson, the director of legislative affairs for the National Science Teachers Association, said of administration officials.

The administration is already under fire for what critics assail as a heavy-handed approach to research on reading. (“Reading Programs Bear Similarities Across the States.” Feb. 4, 2004.)

Education Department officials, however, said the change was necessary so that the grant program could be aligned with the No Child Left Behind Act, and so that more research could be conducted in secondary mathematics instruction.

“That’s what this is all about,” said Susan Sclafani, the department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. “It is not about our control of curriculum.”

But key lawmakers, researchers, and math and science educators voiced outrage over the proposal, contained in President Bush’s budget plan for fiscal 2005.

Calling the president’s recommendation one of his “glaringly bad decisions,” Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Science Committee, which oversees the NSF, said in a statement that “we will fight this tooth and nail.”

David Goldston, the committee’s staff director, said the math- and science-partnership grant program was designed to be competitive and should remain at the NSF. The science foundation “is an agency that has the connections to make sure the programs work and the track record for promoting new ideas and new thinking,” he said. “None of which is true of the Department of Education.”

The NSF, whose workers have expertise in math and science, conducts competitive-grant programs that have passed muster with some of the nation’s top scientists.

Focus on Secondary Math

The proposed shift in funding would significantly decrease the independent agency’s education budget. In fiscal 2004, the current budget year, the NSF has $663 million for education programs. Under the president’s budget proposal, that amount would be reduced to $505 million.

That plan is “sending a message that the National Science Foundation is not important,” said Johnny Lott, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which is based in Reston, Va. “But the NSF is very important to the math and science community,” he added.

What’s worse, Mr. Lott said, the move could alienate mathematicians. “We are making the rift between the math educators and the mathematicians potentially even more serious than it has been in the past,” he contended.

Currently, the Education Department oversees a $149 million program that distributes block grants for math and science partnerships to states that then decide how the money is awarded.

The math and science grant program housed at the NSF is a competitive program, as opposed to being distributed to states, and would remain so if it moved to the department, according to Ms. Sclafani. But the research would be focused almost entirely on math instruction at the secondary education level.

The grants would be administered out of the office of elementary and secondary education, in collaboration with the department’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. Those offices would have the final say in how the money is distributed.

More school districts are seeking advice from the Education Department on “best practices” in teaching math to secondary school students, said Ms. Sclafani, who has worked on the existing math and science grant program at the Education Department. “We don’t have much research with which to guide them,” she said.

Ms. Sclafani likened the design of the new math program to the president’s proposed “Striving Readers” initiative, for which he would allocate $100 million for research in adolescent literacy, an area that advocates say has been overlooked. The department plans to administer that program.

Ms. Sclafani emphasized that the secondary-math research would comply with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Under that law, all Department of Education grant programs totaling more than $100 million must be distributed in the form of block grants to the states. To maintain the competitive nature of the math and science partnerships, the department would need to have an exemption written into the appropriations bill, according to an agency spokeswoman.

Mr. Goldston of the House Science Committee, however, said the No Child Left Behind law itself would have to be amended.

Loss of Cachet?

Should President Bush’s proposal, with its emphasis on math, be successful, science will be left out of the loop, according to Gerald Wheeler, the executive director of the science teachers’ association, based in Arlington, Va.

The change “will almost guarantee that science cannot be adequately addressed by the math- and science-partnership programs,” he said in a statement.

For its part, the NSF is remaining fairly mute on the subject, apparently allowing its supporters to duke it out with the administration in public. “We consider our programs of great value,” said William Noxon, a spokesman for the science agency. The move, he said, “is a decision from the administration.”

Mr. Bush’s budget plan includes $80 million for the NSF to continue overseeing existing partnership grants.

Among them is a five-year, $35 million grant based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its lead researcher, Terrence Millar, is concerned that the program would lose its cachet if it moved to the Education Department. Science, technology, engineering, and math professors “are strapped for time,” and would be less likely to participate, he believes.

The program Mr. Millar heads coordinates teams of university faculty members and precollegiate educators in four metropolitan areas: Denver, Los Angeles, Madison, Wis., and Providence, R.I. Together, the teams help schools choose curricula, provide teacher professional development, and share resources from local universities, laboratories, and museums with educators.

The stringent peer-review process every NSF grant goes through is well-known and respected by researchers, he said, and the agency has a reputation for financing forward-thinking projects that can be copied across the country. In contrast, according to Mr. Millar, the Education Department does not enjoy such a reputation. Progressive research is exactly what is needed now in math and science, he added.

“How best to raise student achievement in math and science is a problem that does not have a clear solution,” he said. “That is why you want to keep your premier research- funding agency in the mix.”

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