Proposed Budget Cuts Set Sights on Education Research

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 22, 2015 5 min read
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Education research advocates took it as a hopeful sign in June when the U.S. House of Representatives’ education appropriations panel marked up its first bill for education spending in six years.

“And then we see it,” said Juliane Baron, the government-relations director for the American Educational Research Association. “Be careful what you ask for. IES really took a hit.”

The Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, faces a $10 million cut in the Senate bill and a whopping $164 million cut in the House appropriations measure, from its current fiscal year budget of $573.9 million. Coming on top of years of uncertain funding, the reductions could stymie the agency’s recent attempts to bring a new and more diverse generation of education researchers into the field.

“It’s just a matter of simple math: The deeper the cuts, the greater the consequences there are for existing work,” said Ruth C. Neild, who was tapped as IES director this summer.

The money crunch could come just as the agency rolls out a redesigned website, teacher and researcher professional development, and the draft of new work for its network of regional educational laboratories, which are eliminated in the House budget plan. The current budget is already well below IES’ $659 million budget in fiscal 2010, before the congressional budget deal that set in motion the years of across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester.

The proposed decreases came as a surprise to many in the field, following congressional hearings on education research last fall in which lawmakers called for evidence-based policy and for more usable education research. The House budget nearly halves the agency’s largest category—research, development, and dissemination—from $180 million this fiscal year to $93.1 million. That includes eliminating the network of regional educational laboratories. The Senate’s mark would cut $2 million, and keep the RELs.

Federal Funding for Education Research

Federal dollars for the U.S. Department of Education’s key research programs have mostly dropped since 2011.


Source: U.S. Education Department, Congress

“I think this budgeting makes a mockery of the so-called ‘evidence movement,’ ” said Michael J. Feuer, the dean of education and human development at George Washington University in Washington. He is also a member of the National Board for Education Sciences, a federally appointed advisory group for the research agency, but said he was speaking for himself. With the research agency and legislators “having stimulated a very interesting and useful and important conversation about evidence for use,” he continued, “how does that square with a continuing sense that the money will not follow that rhetoric?”

Plugged Pipeline

For many multiyear research grants, the IES can only fund one year at a time, so researchers with ongoing work may find themselves in a bind.

That’s a problem, Feuer said, because more than a decade of work by IES and universities to bring more researchers into education has been paying off with a steady rise in the number of postdoctoral researchers—from fields as varied as economics and neuroscience—proposing research in the education field.

“IES over the last 10 years has really developed a cadre of early-career researchers, and you are seeing higher-quality research come out of the field,” said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for research groups including the regional laboratories network. “These early-career folks, their money is just drying up, and they don’t have the funding to continue really interesting research.”

Researchers turned down by IES may not have much better support from other federal research agencies. The House budget basically flat-funds the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation’s education directorate. House report language specifically calls for the National Institutes of Health to prioritize funds for medical research discoveries over education and outreach. The Senate committee report likewise highlighted genetic rather than social-science research on reading disabilities.

“IES is already far too limited in its resources,” said Felice Levine, the executive director of AERA. “To further underfund this agency now will unfortunately have much longer-term consequences for producing the knowledge that our schools, our teachers, and, most importantly, our students, require.”

Blow to Special Education

For example, the $54 million National Center on Special Education Research had no money for new research grants in fiscal 2014, even as the number of proposals rated as the highest quality rose significantly. This year, the center was able to award about 31 new grants, in part because other projects were winding down. But for fiscal 2016, both the House and Senate have proposed cutting the center’s funding again, by nearly $20 million on the House side.

“If you go through the studies of evidence of what seems to be making a difference, there seems to be a body of research on working with students with disabilities,” McLaughlin said. “We want to continue and grow that and build on it; we don’t want to see it die on the vine.”

Lawmakers will get a chance to reconsider the sequestration cuts as Congress nears Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year starts and a budget deal by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., expires.

While researchers generally are not wont to advocate politically, McLaughlin and the AERA’s Baron agreed that researchers have been more outspoken against the proposed cuts. The REL Northwest has planned a congressional briefing Oct. 8, the Friends of IES, a coalition of education and social-science groups, is sponsoring another this Friday, and AERA and other groups planned to bring education deans and researchers to the Hill throughout this week.

More than 1,700 individuals and 75 research organizations, including AERA, the Knowledge Alliance, the Learning and Education Academic Research Network, and the Council for Exceptional Children signed onto a letter Sept. 10 urging Congress to increase the budget for education research.

“As a result of the proposed cuts, critical research is at risk of being interrupted or abandoned, withholding valuable information from educators, policymakers, administrators, and families who are working to improve schools,” they wrote.

It’s a tricky balance, McLaughlin and Baron noted, because unless Congress agrees to raise the overall federal discretionary-spending limits, any increases to education research would come at the expense of other education programs.

“It’s a tough budget time, and what people will say is [education research] just didn’t rise to the top,” Baron said.

Education researchers’ best hope may be that Congress again comes to no agreement on a final budget and instead pushes through a flat-funding omnibus spending bill.

“I really do think there has not been a time in the history of IES where there has been such a body of really high-quality research, both completed and ongoing,” said Neild, its director. “I’d really like to see through some of this work that we’ve done.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as Research Agency Faces Deep Cuts in Budget Bills


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