IES Director Considers Path Forward Through Research Reauthorization, Budget, Staffing Hurdles
The House's stalled negotiation on reauthorizing the federal education research law is frustrating, but only one challenge on the mind of Institute of Education Sciences Director John Q. Easton.
"I had been very optimistic we'd have a bill that would be productive and useful and helpful, and I'm disappointed that there's been a stall," Easton said, but "this is not going to have a material effect on our operations."
Of greater concern are the ongoing sequester cuts, which have slashed more than $31 million from the institute's budget this year from fiscal 2012, and which Congress shows no signs of lifting. "We don't want to retrench," Easton said. "We feel in the research grantmaking we've made a lot of progress, and there's a lot of promising work we'd like to build on and expand. We'd hate to see a reduction in funding for that. And the same is true of our statistical data collections and our assessments."
That sentiment mirrors worries in the research community: "The major problem for research funding remains the sequester for this year and into the future," said Gerald Sroufe, the government relations director for the American Educational Research Association. He and others feel the current iteration of the Education Sciences Reform Act still provides room for Easton to improve federal education research, while ongoing federal cuts could seriously undermine new research.
Easton said for now, "We're not retreating by any means."
"I think we still have considerable opportunities—within funding capacity," he said. "We can't run off and start seven new programs next year." But he noted that the regional educational laboratories and the What Works Clearinghouse, for example, have been producing significantly more practitioner guides, quick research reviews, and Webinar on problems of practice intended to address some of the concerns raised during ESRA reauthorization hearings about the relevance of IES research to educators and policymakers.
"Not only is there more product, but there's a much more active and proactive way of getting it into people's hands," he said.
An updated version of the Government Accountability Office report discussed at that hearing says IES has made progress but still needs to do more to make its research user-friendly. That report recommends that Congress consider giving the Education Department the authority to combine funds allocated for evaluating education programs, to give IES more flexibility.
Statistics Commissioner Search Continues
In other news, Easton confirmed he would step in as acting commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics when Sean P. "Jack" Buckley steps down at the end of the year. Easton's predecessor, Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, also served as NCES acting commissioner for a time, and Easton said Whitehurst recommended he take on the post to build perspective and IES' relationships in the statistical community.
Still, Easton said he has already built up a "good-sized list" of nominees to succeed Buckley, and over the next two weeks plans to investigate them and develop a short-list of potential candidates. The NCES commissioner, a presidential appointment, no longer has to be confirmed by the Senate, and Easton said he has already been in discussions with White House liaisons about the post. "The ones we've spoken to are eager to help us get this done quickly," he said. "I would be thrilled if we had somebody here on July 1."
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