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12 Jan 2004

School Reform Leaves Scientists Behind

Academic researchers may be left behind by a new wrinkle in President George W. Bush's signature "No Child Left Behind" education reform program. Science has learned that the president's 2005 budget request, due out early next month, would phase out the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) largest program to improve student achievement in science and math and shift responsibility for it to the Department of Education, which now runs a similar program. The change would replace a national competition based on peer review with a congressionally mandated formula to distribute money to every state based on its student population.

Shortly after taking office, Bush proposed the Math and Science Partnership (MSP) as a 5-year, $1 billion initiative to strengthen student achievement by linking up university scientists and local educators. Since then, NSF has funded two rounds of grants, totaling $260 million. Congress created the Education Department (ED) program to complement NSF's efforts, and it has grown rapidly from its initial $12.5 million budget to a planned $149 million in 2004. But there's one big difference: The ED money is distributed to states as block grants rather than by peer review (Science, 11 January 2002, p. 265). Sources say that the president's 2005 request doesn't raise the total funding for the combined MSP programs, now about $290 million, and that NSF would receive enough money to finish up projects already under way.

The phaseout of the MSP program would be a blow to university researchers, who use NSF funding to link up with educators from local school districts to train teachers, improve curriculum, and devise better ways to measure student progress in math and science. Instead of applying through NSF's familiar and prestigious process, researchers would have to navigate each state's approach to doling out its money. "The change would not be good," says Jodi Peterson of the National Science Teachers Association, which has lobbied for both programs. "It doesn't make any sense."

No federal officials would talk publicly about the new approach, citing the prohibition on discussing the 2005 budget until the president unveils it on 2 February. But one source familiar with both programs says that the shift was made because White House officials felt that NSF's current MSP programs "were too close to its previous systemic reform initiative and not specific to NCLB [No Child Left Behind]."

Although that sentiment is widely shared by legislators, many also think that NSF is better equipped than ED to run a high-quality program with a lasting impact on student achievement. "We would vigorously oppose such a change," says David Goldston, staff director for the House Science Committee, which oversees NSF programs, although he emphasized that the committee had not been told anything. "The president chose to put it at NSF for the right reasons," he adds, "and switching it would be very damaging to the program."


Related sites
NSF's Math and Science Partnership program
ED's Math and Science Partnership program

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