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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

September 2000

Political Scene

Congress Rethinks Science Education Policy

David Applegate

As we approach the November elections, K-12 education is being cited as a top issue in congressional races, and both Bush and Gore would like to be seen as the “education president.” All of this lavish campaign attention may seem a bit misplaced. After all, most of the funding and policy setting for education takes place at the state and, in particular, local levels. The federal government provides only 9 percent of spending on K-12 education.

A few percent, however, still translates into billions of dollars. Much of the campaign rhetoric revolves around one question: Who decides how the money is spent, the states or the federal government? How that question gets answered will have major implications for federal support of science education.

And the answer to this question is increasingly important. Science education is a national need and must therefore be a national priority. High-technology industries are scrambling to find the skilled workers necessary to maintain a booming economy. The armed forces find their ability to deploy technology limited by the technical proficiency of their soldiers. Meanwhile, U.S. high schoolers test below their peers in most other countries for math and science.

Most federal programs, particularly those in the Department of Education, seek to use federal money as a lever for encouraging states and localities to address national priorities. Such an approach, however, does not sit well with Republicans in Congress who want states to set priorities. To that end, they have been working hard to pass a major overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the legislation that authorizes K-12 programs in the Department of Education. The revised ESEA would transform the current multitude of specifically targeted federal programs into a few broadly defined block grants, leaving it up to individual states and school districts to decide how they wish to spend the money.

Among the department’s programs that would be folded into a non-specific block grant are the Eisenhower Professional Development Program and the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Science and Math Education. The professional development program provides funds for science and math teachers to get additional training, a critical need given the number of teachers who find themselves teaching science classes for which they are not certified and in which they may never have had a college course (a particular problem in the earth sciences). The clearinghouse provides science and math teachers with resource materials.

Combining such programs into block grants would essentially eliminate them. If funds are distributed to states without a specific mandate to support science education, will state and local priorities for science education match the national priorities? Surely, many states recognize the economic advantage of a scientifically literate workforce. But others have applied for waivers to shift Eisenhower funds to other projects deemed more pressing, such as playground construction. As a result, many scientific societies have opposed previous attempts to block grant the Eisenhower programs. The societies have so far succeeded because of a bipartisan recognition that science education must be treated as a national priority and must be addressed at the federal level.

Even while Republicans push to reform ESEA, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), vice-chair of the House Science Committee, has introduced the National Science Education Acts of 2000, which would establish specific federal grant programs and other incentives to bolster science education.

Ehlers has been molding these bills since 1998, when the House adopted a science policy report commissioned by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich and spearheaded by Ehlers. The report found a pressing need for greater attention to science education at all levels of government. Ehlers concluded that “a preponderance of evidence indicates that our schools aren’t preparing our students adequately for the knowledge-based, technologically rich America of today and tomorrow. Without a strong supply of scientists and engineers, of technologically competent workers, and of scientifically literate consumers and voters, the future well being of America is in jeopardy.” He also concluded that “students should learn science primarily by doing science.”

The three bills, which Ehlers unveiled in April, each approach education reform from different angles. The National Science Education Act (H.R. 4271) would establish grant programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), one to help schools hire master teachers to support their science teachers in developing a hands-on, inquiry-based approach; another to set up competitive grants to develop educational software and Web sites.

Ehlers’ National Science Education Enhancement Act (H.R. 4272) focuses on mentoring, which would be added to the types of programs that can receive funding from the Eisenhower Professional Development Program. It would also expand the types of materials to be disseminated to teachers through the Eisenhower Clearinghouse.

The National Science Education Incentives Act (H.R. 4273) would provide tax credits for teachers to offset the cost of their undergraduate education and would allow businesses to receive credit for externships and other teacher training they provide.

Despite the specificity of the programs outlined in his bills, Ehlers is quick to reassure his conservative brethren that he is no turncoat. Each bill comes with a disclaimer: “Nothing in this Act may be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution or school system.”

H.R. 4271 has passed the Science Committee, while H.R. 4272 awaits action in the House Education and the Workforce Committee and H.R. 4273 sits in the House Ways and Means Committee. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has introduced Senate equivalents of all three bills, but they have yet to be considered.

The Clinton administration has not  taken a specific position on the bills, but its officials have been careful to praise the goals of the legislation without endorsing specific provisions. A significant disconnect divides the Ehlers bills from the Republican efforts to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Ehlers bills would refine the federal role in science education, not eliminate it. They would add functions to existing programs without replacing their current functions. But ESEA reforms would eliminate the very programs that Ehlers’ bills would augment.

Should ESEA reformers succeed in eliminating the Eisenhower programs, then the well-meaning proposals in Ehlers’ H.R. 4272 are essentially meaningless. If ESEA reform passes, federal support for science education faces a rocky future.

Fortunately, ESEA reform has stalled in the Senate after passing in the House. If it does not make it through this Congress, scientists and science educators will have a window of opportunity to convince Congress that funding science education is a national priority. Our future depends on it.

Applegate directs the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes.

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