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Ed. Dept. Budget Could Combine Three Significant Research, Policy Programs

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By Sarah D. Sparks and Alyson Klein

The Trump administration's budget, due out next month, is likely to combine three significant research programs—the State Longitudinal Data System program, the Regional Educational Laboratory Program, and the Comprehensive Centers—advocates with knowledge of the proposal said.

The money for all three programs—nearly $140 million all told—would instead be doled out to states through formula grants, said Michele McLaughlin, a senior advisor at Penn Hill Group, a government relations organization. McLaughlin is also the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a lobbying coalition for the education research community, who learned of the proposal ahead of the budget's release. Another advocate in the research community with knowledge of the details also confirmed the proposed changes.

"This proposal is nonsensical and does not reflect congressional intent," said McLaughlin. She noted that the Education Sciences Reform Act, or ESRA, which was last renewed in 2002, keeps all three programs separate. So does a bipartisan bill to reauthorize ESRA—the Strengthening Education Through Research Act—which passed the House in 2014 and the Senate in 2015, but still hasn't made it over the finish line.

The budget change the Trump administration intends to propose would require a legislative change, she said.

"We are puzzled that the administration continues to pursue this wrong-headed proposal," she noted. The Education Department declined to comment. 

If the proposal passes, it would be an "odd" consolidation, agreed Rebecca Maynard, an education and public policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and former Commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance at the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's main research arm. While all three programs work closely with states, she said, "they do very different things, and the actors in the states are very different."

So what exactly do these three programs do? Here's a quick rundown:

•The Regional Education Laboratories or RELs are funded at $54 million, and include 10 regional centers throughout the country charged with helping states understand data and conduct research. It is part of the Institute of Education Sciences.

•The State Longitudinal Data System program allocates $34.5 million in competitive grants to states to design, develop, and implement data systems that track student learning, teacher performance, and college- and career-readiness. It is also part of IES.

•The Comprehensive Centers are now funded at $51.3 million and help states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act and other K-12 policy initiatives. The centers are part of the main Education Department's budget. The Comprehensive Centers have strong support from state chiefs, as you can see from this letter to members of Congress on the spending committees that oversee education. (You can read the letter signed by 21 chiefs.)

The three programs could be difficult to combine. While the state data systems and comprehensive centers are grants, the regional labs' funding is awarded by contract. And experts have voiced concern about moving either the policy-oriented comprehensive center to IES or the research and data programs to the Education Department's program arm.

Moreover, while changing three federally run programs to a state block grant would be in keeping with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' interest in decentralizing education, "the logic of putting that in the states, seems to me to not serve state purposes," said Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association.

"It serves the state purposes to get quality evidence and data and dissemination of that information through some of the best methodologies. ... It seems to me costs would rise and quality would be lower under [the proposed] model," Levine said.

State Capacity Strain?

While IES was one of the few research agencies to escape largely unscathed in budget cuts proposed last year, this is hardly the first time that the regional labs or comprehensive centers have faced budget cuts or restructuring. However, all three of the programs proposed for consolidation have gained traction in the years since the Every Student Succeeds Act pushed more responsibility for accountability and school improvement back to the states. States and districts have increasingly partnered through regional labs and the State Longitudinal Data System network for support in implementing the law.

"The big issue is efficiency. It's really inefficient to have each of the 50 states trying to figure out what the research is and connect to experts on their own," said Ruth Curran Neild, director of the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium and a former delegated director of IES.

"Those national networks are connected to each other and able to look beyond the district and state to find the specific expertise they need. ... I don't think you can assume all states will have that—in fact, we know they don't have that," Neild said. "There are a handful [of states] that would do fine, but I think most of them would not." 

Rachel Anderson, the associate director of federal policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, agreed. The campaign found that 41 states now provide funding to continue to update their longitudinal data systems, but the most recent round of grants had shifted from building the data systems to building tools to help educators and policymakers use the data they generated. 

"While most (but not all states) have a longitudinal data system, few have the capacity to link across [preschool through college] in the ways that are needed to answer important policy questions (such as whether high school graduates are prepared to be successful in college and enter the workforce or whether the state's pre-K investments are preparing students for success in elementary school)," Anderson said in an email.

McLaughlin is also worried that states may not be able to get as much bang for their buck from what would likely be fairly limited formula grants as they do from these established organizations and programs with long-standing expertise.


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