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Regional Education Labs Win Reprieve After Budget Glitch

The Institute of Education Sciences has engineered a temporary reprieve for the nation's regional education laboratories after a technical glitch threatened to eliminate their funding.

The laboratories, which provide research targeted to local problems of practice, are paid for through individual five-year contracts rather than general yearly appropriations, and the most recent contracts are coming to an end this spring. Because IES director John Easton is considering tweaking the next contract cycle to better align the labs with IES's new priorities, the Education Department had asked Congress to include a brief sentence in the budget continuing resolution to extend the current contracts for a year.

However, in the last-minute negotiations between the House and Senate before a short-term continuing resolution was passed just before Christmas, several small items, including the RELs extension, were stripped to produce a final "clean bill." That left the regional labs with no new contracts or budgets for the remainder of 2011.

"Somewhere along the line someone didn't recognize how important it was," said Jim Kohlmoos, the president and CEO of the Knowledge Alliance, which represents the regional laboratories. "The necessary language was in the Senate markup in July, in the yearlong continuing resolution passed in the House in December ... It was everywhere, and it's just one little phrase." That it got dropped at the last minute, Kohlmoos told me, "drove me crazy."

The problem was particularly pressing for four labs whose contracts run out at the end of January: the San Francisco-based WestEd, which operates REL-West; the Denver, Colo.-based Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning's REL Central; the Portland, Ore.-based Education Northwest's REL Northwest; and the Learning Point Associates' REL Midwest.

"We were just panicked. We were all kind of frantic around New Year's," said Max McConkey, WestEd's chief policy and communications officer.

Kohlmoos told me that almost immediately, Education Department and Hill staffers realized it had been a technical mistake, and for the last several weeks, REL and Knowledge Alliance staff have been hunkered down with staff from the department and Congress. The Education Department has agreed to help keep the labs afloat for the next two months, until appropriate language can be added into the next spending bill, due when the current CR runs out on March 4.

"This has really been all consuming. It's been one of those technical things where you get one thing and you think you've gotten it fixed and it brings up a whole new set of questions," Kohlmoos told me from Colorado, where he had finally made it to vacation.

The emergency search for funding may set the tone for the rest of the year, as Kohlmoos told researchers to expect to fight for even level funding in the FY 2012 budget. Yet the immediate response from the department and Congress has made him optimistic about the long-term health of the regional labs system. "There were a lot of people who jumped in strongly supportive of the labs; I was really gratified by the level of interest and depth of interest by the Hill staff," he said.

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