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ELL Clearinghouse Award Expected Soon, Ed. Dept. Says

The U.S. Department of Education in the coming weeks will announce a new decision about a contractor for the National Clearinghouse for English-Language Acquisition, the federally-funded information clearinghouse that has been the subject of controversy and uncertainty for months.

The clearinghouse, known best as NCELA, has been managed for years by researchers and consultants at George Washington University, but last fall, the Education Department awarded a small, Silver Spring, Md.-based company called Leed Management Consulting, Inc., a $2 million annual contract to take over the clearinghouse. The contracting process and the final award to Leed became the subject of formal protests with the Small Business Administration and the Government Accountability Office, prompting the Education Department to take "corrective action" and review the procurement process that led up to the award being issued to Leed.

Department spokesman Daren Briscoe said late last week that "the review is ongoing," but that a new award decision is anticipated by the end of this month. The department originally had signaled that the review would be finished at the end of January.

The key question is whether Leed or any other entity that ultimately ends up with the NCELA contract will make the clearinghouse a more relevant and useful tool for the English-learner field. In reporting I did late last year, there was widespread sentiment that NCELA's usefulness had been waning along with the clout of the Education Department office that oversees it—the Office of English Language Acquisition, or OELA.

In late October, the Education Department issued a contract extension to George Washington University to keep NCELA going, an extension that is set to last through March. It's the third extension that the department has had to grant to the university since June, when its original contract for NCELA expired.

According to paperwork that outlines the latest extension, the department issued more than $561,000 to cover the five months of work between the end of October and the end of March, and the documents also lay out several tasks to be completed by the university on behalf of NCELA. Among those: four webinars, planning and holding meetings, and printing the 2010 biennial report to Congress on states' and districts' adherence to and progress under Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (That report, by the way, is long overdue, just as the 2008 report was last summer when it was released by the department).

Briscoe said the extension is in place "so as not to experience any loss of service during the corrective action period." NCELA did recently conduct a webinar on English-learners and the Common Core State Standards, which is probably the most in-demand topic in the field right now. The NCELA website was also updated last month with a quarterly newsletter with the then three-month-old news that Rosalinda Barrera, the former director of OELA, had stepped down. OELA is the Education Department's office that oversaw the procurement process for the new NCELA contract.

It's important to note that last summer, when George Washington University's original contract was drawing to a close, the university laid off several members of the staff who were working on NCELA, including the executive director Judith Wilde, who left in September. That slimmed-down staffing would indicate that the monthly costs for NCELA would have slimmed down correspondingly. I'm asking the department to further explain and break down the expenses for running the clearinghouse during this five-month extension period.

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