Bill Targets U.S. Education Research

Congressional panel approves legislation -- criticized by some research groups -- that would change how federal education studies are overseen.

September 18, 2014

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate’s education committee on Wednesday unanimously approved an education research bill over the objection of some researchers who said they’re concerned about the changes it makes to how federal education research is overseen.

The legislation, which now heads to the full Senate for a vote, would reauthorize the Institute for Education Sciences, the independent research arm of the Department of Education. A similar version cleared the House earlier this year.

The wide-ranging bill is aimed at streamlining the institute’s operations and promoting accountability by requiring routine outside evaluations of its programs. But several research organizations have protested provisions they say would weaken the National Center for Education Statistics.

Under the bill, the commissioner of the center would no longer be appointed by the U.S. president and confirmed by the Senate; the position would be instead filled by the head of the Institute of Education Sciences, who would also gain more authority over the statistics center’s budget and operations.

“We see every day how essential it is to have an agency monitor the health of our education system, with independent responsibility and accountability,” said Felice J. Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association. “This bill further reduces the efficacy and autonomy of NCES, in particular by not ensuring that the Commissioner is presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed, with sign-off authority for reports.”

Republican lawmakers have said that the bill is aimed, in part, at insulating federal education research from politics.

Criticism of Education Department's Loan Data

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democrat, used her time at Wednesday’s committee meeting to criticize the U.S. Department of Education for what she said was its repeated refusal to provide basic data about federal student loan programs.

Warren said she asked the department in March for information about how well student loan servicers were performing but had not yet received the data.

The Department of Education “can’t avoid accountability by simply hiding the data and refusing to let anyone know how its programs are run,” she said.

“If the Department of Education won’t make the data available, then we need to pass a law to make them make the data available,” she added.

Warren introduced an amendment that would have forced the department to provide researchers with data on its portfolio of federally held student loans. But she immediately withdrew the amendment, saying she wanted the bill to proceed according to the bipartisan, bicameral agreement lawmakers had to pass it.

But she said she would “not stop fighting on this issue.”

Both Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democrat who chairs the panel, and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the committee’s top Republican, said they were open to working with Warren to address her concerns about the availability of the department’s student loan data.

Denise Horn, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that officials routinely provide Congressional lawmakers the data they need to create policy.

“We have provided Senator Warren with assistance and data regarding her refinancing proposal in recent months, and have informed her that we are working to provide the additional data she has requested,” she said.


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