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Uncle Sam's stake in educational enterprises

By Eloise Lee LeitermanEducation editor of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1983


If the Department of Education were to vanish, the federal government would still have a substantial stake in funding education. Half again as much money as the department spends is tucked into at least a dozen different pockets of Uncle Sam's business suit.

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The department's operating budget for fiscal 1983 is $15.7 billion; the proposed figures for fiscal 1984, to be released tomorrow (Jan. 29), are expected to remain in the same range.

Overall, the federal government's portion of tax revenues spent on education does not exceed 10 percent. In the United States, state and local authorities exert most control over education. This, of course, contrasts sharply with other Western nations, where a central ministry of education dominates or completely determines the expenditures for education.

Mr. Reagan announced during his campaign that he wanted to abolish the Department of Education. But through a series of ''continuing resolutions,'' Congress has reprieved it. Meanwhile, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government wield their influence upon education in myriad and sometimes conflicting ways, some of which are not readily apparent to the citizens who must ultimately decide exactly how much federal impact upon education they want and want to pay for.

The Supreme Court continues to be asked to decide the legitimacy of laws affecting schools, colleges, and universities.

The 1954 landmark desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, made the federal government the guarantor of equal access to good schools for all American children. But from the start, congressional and federal court regulations in behalf of civil rights, like subsequent actions in behalf of the handicapped, the language-handicapped, women, and even proposed help to families paying private school tuition, have come under attack both from those who feel the federal government interferes too much and from those who claim it should do more.

Ironically, Federal Office Building No. 6, just south of the Smithsonian complex, houses two tenants: the headquarters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the dwindling Department of Education. But today many critics feel that the federal government, through its emphasis on equal access to education, has ignored needed initiatives for maintaining the rigor of the curriculum, particularly in the areas of science and technology.

''The interest in science education has ebbed and flowed since Sputnik,'' says Dr. Terence L. Porter, head of the fellowship section of the Office of Science Engineering Personnel and Education at the National Science Foundation (NSF), ''but mostly ebbed.''

Right now, however,'' he said. ''the National Science Foundation is planning how to spend $15 million that Congress has appropriated to improve the preparation of math and science teachers. All signs - test scores, competition for teachers, shortage of engineering faculties, and low science requirements by high schools - point to the need for doing something about this problem.''

The NSF is still working out the details, but, ''It will be a competitive grants program favoring collaborative projects which demonstrate support at the community level,'' Dr. Porter indicated. ''We're looking for cooperation between school systems, universities, and the private sector.''

''The federal government can play a leadership role, but the financial role belongs to everybody,'' he insisted.

Asked how reducing the Department of Education would affect the National Science Foundation, Dr. Porter replied, ''In the short run it wouldn't affect us much. But if there is a need for certain things, roles and clienteles shift until the needs get met. In that sense it would affect us.''

At present (fiscal 1983), the foundation is also responsible for $15 million for graduate fellowships.

Mary Kohlerman, adviser to the Commission on Pre-College Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, says the commission is currently defining the roles appropriate to the federal government, state and local governments, business, foundations, museums, and the news media in science education.

It is also promoting the findings from a conference it called last year on what math and science should be taught at all levels of kindergarten through 12 th grade, what the implications of learning research are for science and math teaching, and what use of technology is being made in schools.