Getting the Education Research and Child Care Bills to the Finish Line

It is difficult to find anything written about the Congress in the last couple of years that doesn’t focus on dysfunction and decry the loss of bipartisanship.  Yet, in this Congress, the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act (S.1086) passed the Senate with virtually no opposition, and was approved unanimously in the House on a voice vote.  Similarly, the Strengthening Education through Research Act (H.R.4366) passed the House on a voice vote, and was reported out favorably by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with only minor changes.  It now awaits floor action in the Senate. 

It is important that both these bills become law, both for what their enactment would signal about the ability of Congress to get things done, and, even more importantly, because of the substance of the legislation. 

The Child Care and Development Block Grant Program provides subsidies to low-income working parents for the purchase of child care.  The bill, which is now scheduled for a Senate vote, enhances parental choice, strengthens safety requirements, and devotes resources to states to improve the quality of child care.  At this point, it is probably a done deal, but those of us who care about it and think it will improve the lives of young children and their families will be relieved when it is successfully sent to the president’s desk.

The Strengthening Education through Research Act reauthorizes the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), of which I was the founding director, along with a few other functions, including technical assistance activities provided to states and school systems through the U.S. Department of Education. 

I strongly support the bill as passed by the House and amended by the HELP committee.  It provides continuity for the nation’s education research enterprise, i.e., no radical changes such as those in previous authorizations, while strengthening the independence of IES and streamlining several administrative functions.  One way to read the bill is that we finally have a federal education research agency that works under legislation that makes sense, and that this is understood and appreciated by Congress. 

IES is now without a director – my successor, John Easton, stepped down at the end of August.  It is also without a commissioner of education statistics, the head of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), one of the four administrative divisions of IES, each of which is led by an appointed commissioner with a six-year term of office.  I have every confidence in the acting director, Sue Betka, and the acting NCES commissioner, Peggy Carr.  They are superb administrators who will keep IES and NCES on an even keel while they are in charge.  But I’m sure they would be the first to tell you that career civil servants in acting positions are supposed to be caretakers rather than leaders who point their offices in new directions.  IES needs appointees in these positions operating with the full authority, independence, and leadership expectations afforded to IES through its authorizing legislation.  And IES needs the reauthorization that is now before the Senate to attract the most qualified candidates to its positions of leadership.

I’m optimistic that the bill reported out by the HELP committee will be acted on favorably on the Senate floor.  And since the amendments to the House bill introduced by the HELP committee are relatively minor and have been preapproved by the sponsors in the House, Senate passage should be tantamount to the bill becoming law.

But my optimism is tinged with worry borne out of experience. The 2002 bill that created the Institute of Education Sciences (The Education Sciences Reform Act), nearly failed at the last minute in the Senate because individual senators tried to lard the bill with set asides for university-based research centers within their states.  I remember vividly the knot that formed in the pit of my stomach when a congressional liaison from the Department of Education called me early one evening, told me to sit down and prepare for bad news, and informed me that the bill that had been previously agreed to was dead.  I also remember mustering up enough courage to call senior congressional staff I barely knew at their homes late that night to encourage the compromise that revived the bill the next day.  The lesson I learned was that special interests pushing for floor amendments and last minute deals can derail legislation that otherwise seems a sure thing.  I’m worried that history may repeat itself for IES.

The threat in this case is an effort by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and some research organizations it has recruited to its cause to provide special status to the commissioner of education statistics relative to the other three commissioners in IES (who, respectively, lead the Center for Education Research, the Center for Education Evaluation, and the Center for Special Education Research).  The legislation currently under consideration shifts the appointment process of the NCES Commissioner from the responsibility of the President to the IES Director. AERA, however, advocates that the commissioner for education statistics (but not the other three commissioners) be appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate.  AERA argues that a PAS position (presidentially appointed, senate confirmed) is required to attract the best candidates to lead the statistics center and to assure the center’s independence. 

AERA is wrong, and it ignores the serious downsides for IES if its position prevails, including the prospect of failure to get a reauthorization.  Further, as a knowledgeable observer of the political deliberations said to me last week: “I can’t believe this is the thing they care most about in the bill, and they won’t give it up, even now.”

Some important facts to consider:

    • NCES is one of 13 federal agencies that have statistics as their principal missions.  Only two of them (Census and Labor) are led by PAS appointees.  All 13 agencies carry out their responsibilities well.
    • The two federal statistical agencies that are most similar structurally to NCES because they are housed within science agencies are the National Center for Health Statistics (within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (within the National Science Foundation).  Neither is led by a PAS appointee and both have sterling reputations for the quality of their work.
    • Presidential appointees are screened by the White House for political views and allegiance to the president’s agenda. Stock interview questions include: “Did you vote for the president?;”  “What is your voter registration?;” “Have you contributed financially to political campaigns?;”  “Do you support the president’s policies?” Then come the personal questions to identify those who might later embarrass the president, e.g., “Have you employed domestic help and paid them off the books?;” “Have you been involved in a legal dispute?;” “Do you have or have you ever had a drinking problem?;”  “Have you been treated for a psychiatric condition?”  Honest answers to such questions disqualify a broad swath of candidates who would otherwise be qualified to lead a statistics agency.  Then comes the full FBI field investigation.  And if the candidate makes it through all that and is nominated, the Senate starts a new investigation.  During my tenure, the position of commissioner of education statistics fell vacant twice.  The position then was PAS.  On both occasions, I actively recruited individuals to be considered by the White House.  Several did not want to subject themselves to the confirmation process, and others did not make it through the White House screen.  One felt he had to change his voter registration to have a chance of being accepted. 
    • Three of the five individuals who served as NCES commissioner during the period when the position was PAS had already served within IES or its predecessor agency in lower-level positions.  Thus the “prestige” of a PAS appointment was unnecessary to attract them to federal service.
    • PAS positions frequently fall vacant for long periods of time because of the vagaries and dysfunctions of the presidential appointment process.  The commissioner of education statistics position was vacant and filled by acting or recess appointees for five of the eight years I was in office.
    • It is easier to manage IES if each member of the leadership team is appointed by and reports to the director.  The National Board for Education Sciences, the independent board of distinguished researchers and practitioners that oversees IES, has been very clear on this point in its advice to Congress on reauthorization.  As a chair of the IES board, Robert Granger, described the board’s position in an interview:  “The feeling was unanimous that this [a director-made appointment] was a more rational model.”
    • The commissioner of NCES has very strong protections, including a six-year term appointment, specific authorities in legislation, and transitive independence as part of IES.  Further, NCES reports and statistical releases, like all IES research and statistical products, are not subject to review or approval by any other office of the U.S. Department of Education.  

I’m sure the fight to save the “prestige and independence” of the NCES commissioner is well-intentioned, but it is misinformed and wrong-headed.  It ignores the clear position and reasoning of the National Board for Education Sciences, and the broader points I’ve made above.  And it disregards the bipartisan rejection of the position by the full House and the Senate HELP committee.

Further, leaving aside the merits of the case, no one who is concerned about the health of the nation’s education research enterprise should want the reauthorization of IES to fall victim to advocacy on such a narrow and symbolic issue.  Yet that is exactly what is in danger of befalling the legislation if AERA and its partners succeed in getting one or more senators to bring amendments to the floor.

A. Ford Hinrichs, a long-time acting director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics resigned in 1946 because of political pressure.  He said, “You can’t run this organization under any political obligation from the outside.  The man must be selected from the inside for his ability and competence.”  That is what the Strengthening Education through Research Act ensures.  It is important that it crosses the finish line when it reaches the Senate floor.

Suggested citation: Grover J. “Russ Whitehurst, “Getting the Education Research and Child Care Bills to the Finish Line,” The Brown Center Chalkboard, Brookings Institution, September 25, 2014.