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Federal STEM education policy déjà vu

Federal programs in science education "continue to be burdened by a lack of coordination, a lack of evaluation, and a lack of accountability. The federal portfolio of investments... needs a comprehensive, coordinated management plan to provide balance and coherence across and within federal agencies." Those words appeared in a 1994 report, The Federal Investment in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education: Where Now? What Next? prepared by a White House Federal Coordinating Committee on Science, Engineering, and Technology.

For at least 20 years, the words "consolidation," "overlap," and "duplication of effort" have been part of federal budget rhetoric. Usually such suggestions emanate from the legislative branch. Now a consolidation plan for STEM education has been proposed for FY2014 by the Obama Administration that would reduce over 200 programs by half. 

This time the operative words are "consolidation plan." The U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have functioned as de facto "lead agencies" for science education for generations, with the mission agencies picking their spots in the K-12 to workforce continuum of programs. The proposed reorganization would formalize the division of science education labor with the Department of Education responsible for K-12 and NSF for undergraduate and graduate programming. The Smithsonian Institution would assume the lead for informal education (for which the science center lobby has traditionally favored NSF).

At first glance, this may seem sensible. But it raises various questions about centralization, redundancy, and collaboration that, on their face, challenge the historical record of mission independence by the R&D agencies. Only the NSF is mandated to work across disciplines to advance research and education. Only the Department of Education is mandated to advance education at all levels.

Once the word "science" is inserted, things get murky—and messy. For the delivery system the Education Department assures that every school district in the nation is funded by formula, while the projects competitively awarded by NSF inevitably lead to concentration in certain regions, states, and institutions of higher education. These are cultural differences that are not easily surmounted. If these two systems of education funding criteria could be combined, the nation would perhaps not be steeped in the inequalities of school resources and of student performance that beleaguered us since the Great Society era. 

And what about NIH, NASA, the Department of Energy, and other mission agencies with niche education programs? They are expected to serve as platforms—facilities, partners, and sources of expert personnel—for Department of Education and NSF initiatives. The pressure is on all to make more of fewer programs by re-purposing, realigning, and re-creating infrastructure in the name of efficiency and improvement.  

While making science education (especially teaching) both a priority and a more efficient federal investment that serves all students is a laudable goal, the proposed reorganization may not be the most "evidence-based" route. The problem with this administration is that it is better at translating good ideas with political appeal into action. Thus, the déjà vu over streamlining and austerity might be embraced this time by a deficit-fixated Congress to the detriment of U.S. STEM education—without reducing the $3 billion annual price tag.

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