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So, What Exactly Would Change in Federal Education Research Under the Senate Bill?

Federal education research finally seems like at least one topic lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can get behind, but the reauthorization of the the Education Sciences Reform Act working its way through the Senate right now will not be anything close to a major overhaul of the Institute of Education Sciences.

The Senate education committee yesterday passed its version of the House reauthorization, dubbed the Strengthening Education through Research Act, with bipartisan support. (For a play-by-play of the committee markup, check out my colleague Lauren Camera's analysis over at Politics K-12.) The bill would reauthorize IES through 2020, with more flexibility for the IES director (whenever a new one comes in) but no big budget authorization increases.

"I call this kind of a status quo authorization," said Gerald Sroufe, legislative director for the American Educational Research Association. "There is a serious question of how important the structure of IES is, if the small amount of money available for the IES budget for research is not enough to mount a major research program. Relative to [the National Science Foundation] and [the National Institutes of Health] it is a paltry amount, but times are tough and we didn't expect them to break the bank."

The Senate version does make a few tweaks to the House version:

  • It keeps the House's caps on regional education laboratories and comprehensive centers, adding requirements that comprehensive centers prioritize services to schools with the highest concentrations of students in poverty. Considering nearly half of public school students now live in poverty, this shouldn't be a high bar to meet.
  • It increases public access to public-use data sets in the National Center for Education Statistics (something Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for during the hearing.)
  • It requires "outcome-based decisions" about the RELs and comprehensice centers, though its not yet clear how that will be different from the way they are evaluated now.
  • It allows the National Center for Education Statistics to develop its strategic plan in coordination with the IES director, but the plan would not neccessarily require the director's approval.

That last change may be a bone thrown to AERA, which has been pushing hard—and to little avail—to have the federal education statistics become more independent from IES again.

"There are real issues with the problem of autonomy," Sroufe said, arguing that the Education Department would have a harder time getting a top-notch statistician to fill the commissioner post vacated by Sean P. "Jack" Buckley at the end of last year if it was not a presidential appointment.

In a separate written statement, AERA executive director Felice J. Levine said, "Congress missed an opportunity to strengthen the autonomy of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and protect the integrity of the data it produces."

While it's still possible there will be more changes on the Senate floor, the tweaks so far seem to have been done with approval from the House, so it's likely what we've got is what we'll get if the bill survives the full Senate.

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