Ten is the new five

Once upon a time, major federal education legislation was authorized for five years at a time and funds could only be appropriated for programs so long as the authorization remained valid. As a result, big fat laws such as E.S.E.A. and the Higher Education Act were, in fact, reauthorized every five years, always with amendments and additions, sometimes with improvements. That was the fundamental rhythm of federal education policymaking.

This rhythm began to slow in 1980, when the "General Education Provisions Act" was amended to provide for "automatic extensions" of program authorizations for up to two additional years. In other words, Congress gave itself two extra years to renew programs that were nominally on five-year cycles.

Subsequently, the Appropriations Committees figured out that they didn't really need programs to be reauthorized before they could be re-funded, i.e. that appropriations acts themselves could temporarily extend the programs funded therein. I can't quite make out when that first happened, but today it's rampant, and not just in education. (Appropriators also discovered that they could conjure programs out of whole cloth, with no prior action by authorizers, such as the much-debated Teacher Incentive Fund.)

The upshot is that authorizing committees in particular, and the Congress as a whole, can now take forever to renew expiring programs and the nominal deadlines built into those big fat education laws have become as elastic as Gummi Worms.  

As a result, the upcoming (maybe) reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is occurring five years after the supposed expiry of the previous version. And when the Head Start renewal was finally signed into law a few months back, at least four extra years had elapsed since that was supposed to happen.

The basic rhythm, in other words, has changed. Like everything else on Capitol Hill, it's slowed way down. A decade is becoming the regular timeline for program reauthorizations.

We already see signs that NCLB's renewal and revision has slipped from 2007, when it was "supposed" to happen, to 2009 and very likely 2010 and maybe later. And I'm coming to hope that a similar fate awaits the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA, source of the Institute for Education Sciences and its various component parts, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP]). That measure first drew breath in 2002, authorizing appropriations for fiscal year 2003 and five subsequent years, of which the last is fiscal year 2008, which we're currently in.

There's a big difference, however, between NCLB and ESRA. While lots of people and organizations and policymakers have framed NCLB revisions, and some leading members of Congress have even floated drafts, just about nobody except Russ Whitehurst and his IES team and a handful of interested outside parties is even aware of the need for Congress to focus on ESRA, too. Certainly nobody in Congress has focused. Hence very little has even been proposed--except by those interested parties.

Much as I deplore the general aura of delay, deferral, and dithering that has overtaken education lawmaking, it would be a good thing if action on ESRA drags on and on and on. That's because people who are not interested parties also need to focus on it--since, as we've also come to expect in Washington, the interested parties are focused only on, well, their own interests. The various entities and organizations that live off the IES programs (e.g., the regional educational laboratories and national research centers) are brimming with ideas for what should happen to them. So, too, are the folks who run the agency and its programs, especially Whitehurst and his policy board, the National Board for Education Sciences.

Earlier this year, that body "marked up" ESRA to show the changes that members would like to see made in it. Some are harmless and some technical, but one set of recommended changes could prove disastrous for the future of education statistics and NAEP: they would eradicate most of the "protections" carefully written into the 2002 legislation to keep the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and its commissioner, and NAEP and its own governing board (the National Assessment Governing Board, a.k.a. NAGB) semi-autonomous and at least partially free from the whims of IES.

The reasoning back then was that statistics and NAEP need to maintain their integrity and credibility and not be subject to second-guessing and review by whoever may occupy Whitehurst's office in the future. Whitehurst himself, it may be noted, is strong on experimental research in education but seems oblivious to the fundamental difference between such research and the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of accurate, timely, and trustworthy statistics and assessment results. It's not clear that he assigns much value to such things, either.

Many people worked hard at the beginning of this decade to explain to Congress why such protections and separations are important. They're every bit as important today. But so far nobody seems to have focused on this issue except those who would like to undo them.

Not a good situation. Leading me to conclude that Congress should take forever to renew this statute. IES is faring pretty well under current law. So are NCES and NAEP. (All three have been deemed "effective" by the Office of Management and Budget--a real accomplishment.) Since it would be more than a pity to upset this applecart, maybe it shouldn't be touched. Certainly not until a lot more points of view and interpretations of the public interest are brought to bear on the matter.

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