Breakthrough for Education at NSF?
For the science and engineering education directorate at the National Science Foundation, the years of the Reagan Administration have followed a sort of Cinderella scenario. In 1981, the incoming Administration abolished the directorate and cut spending for education to $16 million for graduate fellowships. Since that low point, the directorate has bee reestablished and significant funding restored. A 44% increase this year pushed NSF's education budget to $139 million and the request for next year is $156 million.
Education at NSF owes its resurgence most directly to Congress. And behind the congressional initiative has been strong public sentiment for reform in U.S. schools powered by concern about the quality of American education in a competitive world economy.
Looked at another way, however, the education directorate had the good luck to be rebuilding in a period when NSF was enjoying favored treatment and the agency budget was growing at a comfortable rate. But two tighter budget years for the NSF at large may well herald a period of deficit-fighting restraint on spending. And this is likely to mean a sharper intramural contest for funds at NSF and, perhaps, a reversion to attitudes that cast education is stepchild status in previous years.
Partisans of a strong NSF role in education hope, however, that the upward trend will continue and the directorate will reclaim a larger share of the agency's budget. In the late 1950s, education received nearly 40% of the total foundation budget compared with well under 10% now.
Until the recent big budget increase for education, critics in Congress and elsewhere complained about the slow pace of growth of the education directorate's budget and activities, particularly its precollege program. Not untypical was the exasperation expressed by Florida congressman Don Fuqua when he retired last year from the House and the chairmanship of the its Science, Space and Technology Committee, NSF's authorizing committee.
Among the recommendations in a personal statement he issued a swan song was a suggestion that Congress consider whether the NSF's responsibilities for precollege science education should be transferred to the Department of Education. As Fuqua put it, "bearing in mind the abysmal record of the NSF in this area. It may well be that the problem of precollege science education in the nation is better handled by educators than by research scientists."
Pressure has been exerted even more directly by the House and Senate appropriations committees' earmarking of funds. For the current year, the House Appropriations subcommittee chaired by Representative Edward Boland (D--MA) raised the Administration request for precollege science education by $30 million. Its report noted that "The Committee has strongly supported increased science education funding over many years. further, it believes that for too long this activity has been severely 'shortchanged.' The unfortunate result of that long-standing policy is now being seen in the continuing decline of high quality science and math teachers, students, curriculum, and equipment at the nation's secondary schools."
NSF management also came under increasing criticism on the...