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FYI Number 17: February 16, 2001

K-12 Education Reform Takes Center Stage

K-12 education reform is clearly a hot topic in Washington. Not only has President Bush made it an early priority of his Administration, but there is currently a window of opportunity to transform the programs of the Department of Education through reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Authorization for these federal programs lapsed during the last session of Congress, but efforts to pass a new ESEA bill stalled in the Senate and eventually were abandoned for the session. Yesterday, members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee heard from Education Secretary Rod Paige on Bush's education proposal, "No Child Left Behind," which is intended as a blueprint to guide the ESEA reauthorization. In addition to the Bush plan and several Democratic alternatives for ESEA, other legislative proposals have been introduced to strengthen science and math education specifically.

ESEA authorizes a large portion of the federal funds that go to states and localities for K-12 education, from Title I support of the neediest schools, to the Eisenhower grants program, which provides dollars for teacher professional development in general, and science and math in particular. (The Eisenhower program received $485 million for FY 2001, with $250 million set aside strictly for science and math.) Although federal education funding accounts for only about seven percent of all education money, there are strong and conflicting opinions about how those federal funds should be used. Bush's plan would consolidate about 50 Education Department programs into five general areas, giving the states more flexibility on how to use the federal money, while requiring more accountability in the form of annual testing of 3rd- through 8th-grade students in math and reading. If school districts did not adequately improve student achievement for three consecutive years, low-income students would be able to use federal money, through vouchers, to attend another public or a private school. This is probably the most controversial provision in Bush's proposal.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), leading a group of New Democrats, plans to reintroduce a bill which is similar in many respects to Bush's plan. It would consolidate many programs into five general categories, and emphasize flexibility and accountability, but would not provide for vouchers. More traditional Democratic proposals (S. 7 and H.R. 340) have been introduced by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in the Senate and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) in the House, which would do less consolidation of federal programs.

Of specific interest to the science community, Bush's plan would consolidate the Eisenhower program into a larger Teacher Quality initiative, eliminating the set-aside for science and math professional development. However, Bush's proposal also includes a provision authorizing funding for states and local education authorities to join in partnerships with higher education institutions to improve science and math standards, curricula and teacher preparation and training. It encourages university science and math departments to work with schools of education in these partnerships. The President's plan also calls for challenging state content standards, but not annual testing, in science.

Of the Democratic alternatives, Lieberman's proposal would also consolidate the Eisenhower program into a Teacher Quality initiative, eliminating the science/math set-aside. It would require regular student performance assessments in science as well as math and reading. The Kennedy and Miller bills would retain the Eisenhower program and increase the science/math set- aside to $300 million. Kennedy's legislation would also require yearly science assessments.

Added to the mix are several smaller bills targeted specifically to improving science and math education. Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Connie Morella (R-MD) have proposed legislation (H.R. 117) incorporating many of the Glenn Commission's recommendations, including authorizing 15 Glenn Academies to provide summer professional development workshops and year-long Fellowships for prospective teachers. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) has reintroduced his trio of science education bills from last year (now H.R. 100, 101, and 102; see FYIs #39, 41, and 130, 2000), which would enhance science education programs at NSF and the Education Department and provide tax breaks for teachers' college tuition and industry contributions to science education. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) plans to reintroduce companion legislation in the Senate; at yesterday's hearing he called improving science and math education for U.S. students "a matter of national security."

Several other committee members also mentioned the importance of science and math education, with Chairman James Jeffords (R-VT) urging greater collaboration between colleges of education and science and math departments to improve teacher preparation, curricula, and educational research in those disciplines.

The hearing was in general very positive, with Paige and most of the committee members agreeing to work together on reform of the nation's education system. The committee plans to mark up a draft bill by the end of this month, and take it to the Senate floor by mid-March. However, many Democratic committee members expressed concern that the full details of Bush's budget submission, including what the President plans to request for the Education Department, would not be available until the first week in April. Paige promised that the committee would receive a general indication of likely budget numbers before the end of February.

It is important to keep in mind that all of the legislative efforts mentioned above are authorization, and not appropriations, bills. Authorization bills are intended to set policy and spending guidelines, but do not provide the actual money. How well any of these efforts fare, even if they are passed, depends on whether they are funded adequately in the relevant appropriations bill.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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