Congressional Panels Dump on STEM Reshuffling Plan

STEMming the tide. The House science committee, led by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), is one of several panels weighing in against the proposed realignment of STEM education programs.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology


That's the response this month from several congressional panels to the Obama administration's plan to radically realign the federal government's $3 billion annual investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. The latest—and sharpest—criticism came yesterday from the Senate Appropriations Committee as it approved a 2014 spending bill covering NASA, the Commerce Department, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The administration's plan, unveiled in April as part of its 2014 budget request to Congress would cut in half the 226 STEM education programs now being funded at 13 federal agencies. White House officials say that their goal is to both eliminate redundant and ineffective programs and give authority to the Department of Education, NSF, and the Smithsonian Institution to lead federal efforts in four key areas: K-12 education, undergraduate and graduate training, and informal science education.

But so far Congress isn't buying those arguments. Its spending and authorizing committees seem to agree with most STEM educators that the White House hasn't explained why the reshuffling is needed and that the proposal scraps many effective programs. Educators have also complained that White House budget officials are ignoring the unique expertise and tools that exist within so-called mission agencies like NASA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And they say that the White House failed to seek their input about the best way to improve STEM programs.

The Senate spending panel basically trashed the idea in report language approved yesterday as part of a $52 billion Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) bill that funds several federal agencies. "While the committee maintains its support for greater efficiencies and consolidation … [it] has concerns that the proposal has not been thoroughly vetted with the education community or congressional authorizing committees and lacks thorough guidance and input from Federal agencies affected by the proposal."

The congressional panel questioned both the basis for the reshuffling and the idea of creating lead agencies. "The administration has yet to provide a viable plan ensuring that the new lead STEM institutions … can support the unique fellowship, training, and outreach programs now managed by other agencies. Conversely, what is proposed as a consolidation … is really the elimination of many proven and successful programs with no evaluation on why they were deemed duplicative or ineffective."

Responsibility for STEM education is spread across many congressional committees, each of which exercises oversight of a handful of federal agencies. In the past few weeks, half a dozen panels have addressed the administration's plans for STEM education. And while the CJS language may be the harshest, none of the committees has embraced the reorganization.

A bill approved yesterday by the House of Representatives science committee to reauthorize NASA programs, for example, rejects the two key elements of what the administration has proposed—stripping the agency of most of its STEM education agencies and putting the rest under one roof. "The administration may not implement any proposed STEM education and outreach-related changes proposed [for NASA] in the president's 2014 budget request," the bill flatly declares. "Funds devoted to education and public outreach should be maintained in the [science, aeronautics, exploration, and mission] directorates, and the consolidation of those activities within the Education Directorate is prohibited."

Likewise, the House version of the CJS spending bill would restore money for STEM education activities at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and put the kibosh on a realignment of undergraduate STEM education programs at NSF. "The committee supports the concept of improving efficiency and effectiveness, through streamlining and better coordination, but does not believe that this particular restructuring proposal achieves that goal," the legislators explain in a report this week accompanying the spending bill. The report also notes that "the ideas presented in the budget request lack any substantive implementation plan and have little support within the STEM education community."

The chair of the House panel that crafted the language, Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), has long felt that the federal government does a poor job of spreading the word about what works in STEM education. And he doesn't think that the administration's new strategy adequately addresses that problem, either. Wolf said the White House has broken its promise to provide a "coordinated and robust strategy for dissemination" and replaced it with a "limited initiative at the Smithsonian Institution that would be funded by eliminating many of the programs whose content was to be disseminated and which would not capture all potential inputs from across the government."

Senate appropriators were equally dismissive of the reorganization. Last week, they approved a massive spending bill covering NIH's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and several other departments that would put the brakes on the administration's plan to dismantle NIH's Office of Science Education and a related grants program supporting informal health science education. "The Committee is not convinced that the quality of these programs would be maintained if they were moved to other Federal agencies," states a report accompanying the spending bill.

The bill also rejects the administration's plans to beef up STEM education at the Education Department. Instead of endorsing a request for $414 million worth of programs under the new umbrella "STEM Innovation," the panel allocates $55 million for STEM innovation networks under an existing program and less than the White House requested for a handful of programs aimed at improving STEM teaching and bolstering online learning. The House has not yet taken up an NIH spending bill.

The proposed STEM reorganization fared best in the two congressional spending panels that fund the Department of Energy (DOE). The House version of the so-called energy and water appropriations bill, approved by the full body on 10 July, states that the spending panel "is still evaluating" the plan. At the same time, it instructs DOE officials to meet with NSF to figure out how to fund a graduate fellowship program in the computer sciences that was put on the chopping block. The Senate counterpart to the bill, which has not gone to the floor, makes no mention of the proposed reorganization.