Evidence at Risk in House Spending Bill

The House Appropriations Committee marked up its spending bill yesterday for fiscal year 2016 for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. The spending levels in the bill put forward by the majority reduce Department of Education funding by $2.8 billion, mostly by eliminating approximately two dozen programs and severely cutting back several others, so it is no surprise that the bill passed through the Committee along party lines.

I can’t speak for all of the affected programs, but I do want to address what some of these proposed cuts could do. In a word, they would devastate the movement toward evidence as a basis for policy and practice in education.

First, the House bill would eliminate Investing in Innovation (i3). i3 has been the flagship for “tiered evidence” initiatives, providing large scale-up grants for programs that already have substantial evidence of effectiveness, smaller “validation” grants for programs with some evidence to build up their evidence base, and much smaller “development” grants for programs worth developing, piloting, and evaluating. At $120 million per year, i3 costs about 50¢ per taxpayer. What we get for 50¢ per year is a wide variety of promising programs at all grade levels and in all subjects, serving thousands of mostly high-poverty schools nationwide. We get evidence on the effectiveness of these programs, which tells us which are ready for broader use in our schools. The evidence from i3 informs the whole $630-billion public education enterprise, especially the $15-billion Title I program. That is, i3 costs 2¢ for every $100 spent on public education. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine offered an amendment to restore i3 and increase its funding level to $300 million, which is what the president had proposed. The process of offering the amendment gave members the opportunity to discuss the importance of i3, but in the end it was withdrawn (a not-uncommon procedural move when the amendment does not have an offset and/or is not expected to pass).

Second, the House proposal would significantly reduce funding for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). IES commissions a wide variety of educational research, data collection, communications about evidence, and standard-setting for evidence, at a very modest cost. In this case, Congressman Mike Honda of California offered and withdrew an amendment to restore IES funding to its FY15 level of $574 million.

Finally, the main target of the proposed cuts was discretionary programs, which provide direct services to students. Districts, states, and other entities have to apply for these pots of money (as distinct from funds such as Title I or IDEA that are distributed by formula). Examples include Striving Readers (for struggling secondary readers); School Improvement Grants, or SIG (for low-performing schools); Preschool Development Grants; Mathematics and Science Partnerships; Ready to Learn (educational television); and several others.

These discretionary funding sources are the programs that could most easily be focused on evidence. One practical example is SIG, which recently added a category of approved expenditures consisting of whole-school reform programs with at least moderate evidence of effectiveness, which includes having been tested against a control group in at least one rigorous experiment. As another example, Title II SEED grants for professional development now require that programs adopted under SEED funding have at least moderate evidence of effectiveness. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro offered an amendment to reinstate many of these programs, and it failed along party lines.

Adding evidence as a requirement or encouraging use of proven programs is much easier with discretionary programs than with formula grants. Yet if the House bill were to become law, there would be very few discretionary programs left.

The House proposal would greatly reduce national capacity to find out what works and what does not, and to scale up proven programs and practices. I very much hope our leaders in Congress will rethink this strategy and retain funding for the government programs mostly likely to help all of us learn — policy makers, educators, and kids alike.


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