House panel aims to create new education research agency

Calling for a major overhaul of government-financed education research, the House Education Reform Subcommittee approved a bill on Wednesday that sponsors said would substitute "valid" research for politics in forging new education programs and technology.

In moving H.R. 3801 to the full Education and the Workforce Committee by voice vote, the panel doubled the amount authorized for federally sponsored research to $400 million. But it also insisted that the Department of Education's existing Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) be dug up root and branch and transplanted as a semi-autonomous Academy of Education Science dedicated to finding new ways of educating children from all walks of life.

"We shouldn't be throwing federal dollars into research that is simplistic and unreliable," said subcommittee chairman Michael Castle, R-Del. "It is way past time to bring educational research up to the same standards of inquiry as medical science, providing educators and administrators with rigorously tested methods and techniques, for setting sound policy and improving education practices."

The legislation's sponsors, including ranking Democrat Dale Kildee of Michigan, maintained that their bill would largely insulate researchers and their projects from strong ideological pressures -- presumably from Congress and various interest groups -- by erecting a wall between the proposed academy and the Education Department. Whether that would minimize the recurring fights here over education policy between conservatives and liberals remains to be seen.

Indeed, the legislation already has sparked testy feedback from existing regional research agencies, such as highly successful centers in California and the Midwest, which fear that the restructuring bill would cut off their contracts to conduct federally financed inquiries meant to improve children's educations.

That concern was raised during Wednesday's debate by Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Judy Biggert, R-Ill., who cautioned against undermining the existing regional research centers -- which they said have been doing good work and could be nudged aside by the proposed reorganization.

"It's incomprehensible to me why we'd want to eliminate our regional laboratories," Woolsey said. "In our laudable efforts to improve education research, we must keep what works."

Castle insisted that the bill would "not eliminate regional labs," but acknowledged that some of them, after their current contracts expire in four or five years, would have to compete with other research centers for new contracts, or renewal of old ones.

"What we're really trying to do here," he added, "is strengthen research and technical assistance ... If existing labs are doing a good job, we want to keep them involved."

Before sending the bill to its parent committee, the panel adopted an amendment, by voice vote, sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., that he said would "ensure greater independence from political pressures" on research efforts and "improve access to the fruits of the research by teachers and school administrators."

Castle said the bill could come up for final action by the full committee as early as next week, then be sent to the House floor in April. His staff, he said, has been "working closely" with staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- headed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.-- in the hope of gathering Senate support for the idea.

Despite the bill's higher price tag for education research, Castle said he believes that the Office of Management and Budget will sign on to the legislation. "The president's budget already calls for some increase in school research projects," he said.

In addition to supplanting OERI with the new Academy of Education Science, the bill separates the Education Department's existing functions for evaluating the effectiveness of research programs and for administering the programs, thus eliminating a possible conflict of interest between the management and evaluation of the research.

The academy itself would house three new "national centers" for education research, for evaluation (of research results) and for collection and analysis of education statistics. The academy would be headed by a presidentially appointed director and overseen by a 15-member National Board For Education Sciences, also appointed by the president. The academy would be largely responsible not only for overseeing the activities of the national centers but also for awarding research grants.

The legislation also creates 10 new regional "technical assistance" boards to determine state and local education priorities, focusing on support needed to improve instruction in math, science and technology and to monitor the outcome of federal education programs, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). These nine-member boards would be headed either by state governors or state education superintendents and composed of parents and "practicing educators."

The regional boards would have to give priority to the needs of schools with large numbers of low-income students.

In a nod to congressional conservatives, who abhor the thought of a national student testing regime, the legislation bans federal funding "to develop, pilot test, field test, implement, administer, or distribute any federally sponsored national test in reading, mathematics, or any other subject, unless specifically and explicitly authorized in law."

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