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Science Funding Left Behind
Emily Lehr Wallace

What started as strong, bipartisan legislation aimed to boost math and science education for America’s students is now turning into a vicious political battle that could further threaten the nation’s already cash-strapped public school systems. At the heart of the controversy is the allocation of funds for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform initiative.

Two programs

In 1999, the Third International Math and Science Study found that the longer U.S. students are in school, the farther they fall behind internationally in math and science proficiency. That prompted Bush to propose the National Math and Science Partnership (MSP) program as part of No Child Left Behind.

The goal of the partnership program is to strengthen K-12 science and math education by promoting a vision of education as a continuum that begins with the youngest learners and progresses through adulthood with teacher training. Among its activities, the program supports partnerships that unite K-12 schools, institutions of higher education and private industry.

Congress took the president’s suggestion and created in 2002 an MSP program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the agency’s authorization and another partnership program at the Department of Education as part of No Child Left Behind. These two acts of Congress were not made in duplication. The funds allocated under No Child Left Behind for the Department of Education MSPs go directly to the states as formula grants, providing funds to all states to replicate and then implement the best of the NSF partnerships throughout the country. Once states receive the money, they make competitive grants to local partnerships.

The competitive, peer-reviewed NSF partnerships seek to develop scientifically sound model-reform initiatives that will improve teacher quality, develop challenging curricula, and increase student achievement in math and science. NSF awarded the first grants to local school districts in September 2002 and announced the second round of grants last fall.

At a hearing last October, the House Science Committee found that this new partnership program is “on the right track toward improving math and science education.” Testifying before the committee, M. Susana Navarro, executive director of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence MSP, said: “What the MSP now provides is an opportunity to bring together partners across the community, K-16, toward the shared development and implementation of high quality math and science content and instructional practices aimed at improving student achievement among all students.”

For example, in Stark County, Ohio, a $7.5 million five-year NSF MSP grant funded in October 2002 is connecting 44 middle and high schools to five local colleges and universities. Among its accomplishments, the Stark County partnership has already developed a database of math, science and education professors, implemented a coaching program for math and science teachers, and provided teacher internships. Stark County believes that educating its teachers and providing them with accessible resources will increase student achievement and reduce the achievement gap at the secondary level.

Shifting funds

Just three months after that hearing, President Bush released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2005 (FY05), which phases out the NSF partnership programs and shifts the funding to the MSP companion program at the Department of Education. If approved by Congress, this would result in a $269.1 million budget request for the MSP program — an 80 percent increase over last year.

However, the $120 million increase requested for 2005 is not slated to fund additional MSPs on the local level; instead it would finance a new program focused on accelerating the math learning of secondary-school students, especially those who are at risk of dropping out of school because they lack basic skills in math. Susan K. Sclafani, assistant secretary for the Department of Education, told The New York Times on April 14th that summer math remediation programs are the more pressing need because students who do not get a good math background before Algebra 1 are not prepared to do math or science in high school.

Under No Child Left Behind, all schoolchildren must be proficient in reading and math by 2014 — an incredibly high mandate set in the law. It is also a largely unfunded mandate: The president’s budget proposal for Title I, the portion of the law dedicated to improving the academic achievement of disadvantaged children, is $5 billion below what Congress has authorized for FY05.

The president’s proposal for FY05 would thus stymie the NSF program, which has the advantage of combining the best of what we already know with innovative practices developed by some of today’s finest minds in math and science education. It then gives science education short shrift under the Department of Education’s MSP funding in order to make up for shortcomings in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Tough fight

With scant funds and high standards, the Bush administration must either undertake some creative financing in order to pay for and implement No Child Left Behind or admit that they aimed too high and begin to grant exemptions. Fourteen states have already notified the Department of Education that soon the majority of their schools would be unfairly labeled as failing simply because they didn’t have the money to implement the new reforms.

All of this is turning into a political nightmare for the Bush administration. It is pitting Congress’ long-term planning against the president’s need to make good on his signature education initiative. It is also pitting the president against fellow Republicans, such as Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), a research physicist and six-term Congressman who has served on both the education and science committees, and Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), the current chairman of the House Science Committee.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been out in force this spring. They are authoring and signing letters urging those who make the final funding decisions for NSF and the Department of Education to keep the MSP programs as they are in their current form — to safeguard the peer-review process and the formula grants for all states.


Wallace is with the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute. Email: govt@agiweb.org.

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