Update on Science Education Bills

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Publication date: 
21 June 2001


After six weeks of floor debate, the Senate on June 14 passed its version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), by a margin of 91- 8. (The House passed its ESEA bill by a 384-45 vote on May 23.) The next step for this bill, which reauthorizes the majority of the Department of Education's K-12 programs, is a House-Senate conference, but conferees have not been named yet. Reportedly, the change of majority in the Senate and ensuing negotiations over Senate organization have caused some delay.

The House and Senate versions of ESEA are similar in many important respects, setting the stage for a final compromise in conference. Both bills incorporate President Bush's proposal for annual testing of student achievement in reading and math in grades 3-8, with monetary disincentives for schools that do not perform adequately. Neither bill would authorize private school vouchers. Both would allow some states and local school districts added flexibility in the use of federal funds, but not to the extent sought by Bush and conservative Republicans.

On issues relating to science education, under Title II: Teacher Quality, the House and Senate bills include slightly different forms of a new Mathematics and Science Partnerships initiative. These partnerships would enable local school districts to partner with university science and math departments, state education agencies, and possibly other partners, to seek funding for activities to improve science and math education.

Congressional support for this initiative is evidenced by the fact that in both the Senate and the House, amendments were passed that allowed increased funding for the partnerships. Under the Senate bill, the partnerships would be authorized at $900 million in fiscal year 2002, with some matching funds required. The Education Department would award competitive grants directly to the partnerships for a broad array of allowable activities, including teacher recruitment, curriculum and professional development, summer workshops, master teachers, distance learning programs, and scientific research opportunities for teachers.

The partnership program is designed differently under the House bill: Of the $3.6 billion in Teacher Quality funds provided by the Education Department to states by formula grant, the states would be required to spend 15-20 percent (their choice) of that money for math and science partnerships. Under the House version, the states would award the money competitively to partnerships. Allowable activities include teacher professional development, recruitment, and research opportunities.

Neither bill preserves the Eisenhower Professional Development state grants program, which in recent years has set aside $250 million per year specifically for teacher development in science and math. The Senate bill would reauthorize the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse as a resource for teachers to find instructional materials; it is not mentioned in the House bill. The Senate bill also calls for testing in science, not annually as with reading and math, but three times during a student's 3rd- 12th grade years. The House bill does not incorporate science testing, but at the urging of Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee has agreed to support it in conference.

One major remaining issue for ESEA is funding. As an authorizing bill, ESEA can provide funding guidance but not appropriate actual dollars. The Senate ESEA bill would authorize close to $33 billion for FY 2002, while the House version would authorize $23 billion (both greater than Bush has requested for the coming year.) There is some talk that Senate Democrats may consider delaying the final ESEA bill to hold out for higher funding in the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill.


One day before the Senate approved its ESEA bill, the House Science Committee passed two bills also relating to science education. H.R. 1858, The National Mathematics and Science Partnerships Act, introduced by committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), would authorize establishment of a math and science partnership program (at $200 million per year) within NSF (see FYI #67). Among its other provisions, Boehlert's bill would establish a scholarship program for science, math, and engineering majors to pursue a teaching career, and establish four national centers for research on education and learning.

Also approved by the Science Committee on June 13 was Ehlers' H.R. 100, the National Science Education Act. This bill is a streamlined version of one of the science education bills Ehlers first introduced last year, and would primarily authorize NSF to give grants to universities for training and support of master teachers for K-9 math and science classrooms.

"Today we passed two thoughtful, innovative, bipartisan bills that should have a significant impact on improving pre-college education," Boehlert stated in a committee press release. "These are bills everyone on this committee can be proud of and, most important, they should make a difference to America's students." The committee's Ranking Minority Member, Ralph Hall (D-TX), praised Boehlert for accepting many provisions authored by committee Democrats and "working in a bipartisan fashion."

Both Science Committee bills must now go to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, where prospects for mark-up are uncertain. If Boehlert's bill authorizing math and science partnerships within NSF were ultimately to achieve passage, it is not clear what the implications would be for the ESEA bill, which authorizes similar partnerships within the Education Department. The final decisions on which partnership programs receive funding, and how much, most likely will lie in the hands of the VA/HUD appropriators, who appropriate funds for NSF programs, and the Labor-HHS-Education appropriators, who write the funding bill for the Education Department.