The prospects of greater federal involvement

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The magnitude of the science and math problem would appear to cry out for a federal hand in any proposed solutions. Indeed, a blue ribbon commission recently recommended that Washington expand its role in the science and math conundrum. But the history of public education in America is not ripe with federal involvement, and not everyone is eager to buck that ingrained tradition.

The one aspect of the science and math debate that has not attracted as much attention as it might deserve - and which might have an impact on the federal goverment's involvement in the problem - is the issue of national security. The federal government funds 70 percent of all basic research. Fifty-seven percent of its research and development money is earmarked for defense, and that requires many mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.

A key component of the US defense strategy has long been to outweigh the Soviet's advantage in manpower and equipment with technology. There is concern in the defense establishment that this technological lead is eroding.

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Some observers think that if a direct link can be established between the weakening of the nation's defense and the poor quality of science and math instruction in public schools, it will give rise to a greater federal government role.

Congress is not by any means standing aside during this debate. Over a dozen bills relating to funding of science and math programs are currently being considered in Congress.

The House passed a bill in March authorizing $425 million to improve math-and science-teacher training from grade school through college. Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts introduced a $500 million bill that would use matching grants to persuade businesses to fund precollege programs, train teachers, and upgrade facilities. Another 15 bills have been introduced in the Senate that would increase the federal role in education.

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