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Republicans Urge Scholarships For Math and Science Students

By Sam Dillon
THE NEW YORK TIMES

When Republican senators quietly tucked a major new student aid program into the 774-page budget bill last month, they not only approved a five-year, $3.75 billion initiative. They also set up what could be an important shift in American education: for the first time the federal government will rate the academic rigor of the nation’s 18,000 high schools.

The measure, backed by the Bush administration and expected to pass the House when it returns next month, would provide $750 to $1,300 grants to low-income college freshmen and sophomores who have completed “a rigorous secondary school program of study” and larger amounts to juniors and seniors majoring in math, science and other critical fields.

It leaves it to the secretary of education to define rigorous, giving her a new foothold in matters of high school curriculums.

Mindful of the delicate politics at play when Washington expands its educational role into matters zealously guarded as local prerogatives, senior Department of Education officials said they would consult with governors and other groups in determining which high school programs would allow students to qualify for grants.

“I do not see this, at all, as an expansion of the federal role,” Sally L. Stroup, an assistant secretary of education, said in an interview. Washington, she said, would not impose a curriculum, just judge programs of study outlined by states. “Our job is to make sure that those are valid standards and valid programs,” she said. Furthermore, states and communities can decide on their own whether their students will compete for the grants. “We don’t force people to do anything,” Ms. Stroup said.

But Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, the nation’s largest association of colleges and universities, said the new program “involves the federal government in curricular matters in a way that opens a new chapter in educational history.”

“I’m very sympathetic to the goal of getting more students to take more math and science courses, but this particular plan has the potential to turn the Department of Education into a national school board,” Mr. Hartle said.

Ms. Stroup and other department officials said they had not yet figured out how, if the program is approved, they would go about identifying which students to qualify from which high schools. The department would have $790 million in new grant money to distribute to college-bound students by this fall, a tight timeline that Ms. Stroup said would force the department to postpone the rule-making process that usually accompanies new programs. Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman, estimated that more than 500,000 students would receive grants.

Several prominent educators said they expected the legislation to unleash a scramble by high schools to gain recognition of their curricula as rigorous.

The Constitution outlines no role for the federal government in education, and local control of schools is a cornerstone of the American system. But Washington’s role has grown since Congress began financing college studies for World War II veterans. Several laws increased federal aid to education, including the landmark National Defense Act of 1958, but specifically prohibited federal officials from assuming supervision or control over programs of instruction. And while President Bush’s education law, No Child Left Behind, imposed mandatory testing, it allowed the states to choose their own tests.

Like the No Child Left Behind law, the new grants are largely an effort to take a Texas idea nationwide. The legislation is modeled on the Texas Scholars program, begun during Mr. Bush’s governorship, which enlisted certain Texas high schools and encouraged their students to take a “rigorous course of study,” defined to include four years of English; three and a half years of social studies; two years of foreign language; and a year each of algebra, geometry, advanced algebra, biology, chemistry and physics.

After Mr. Bush became president, his administration financed a Center for State Scholars, based in Austin, to spread a curriculum modeled on Texas Scholars nationwide. In the 2006 budget, he proposed supplemental Pell Grants for college freshmen and sophomores who had completed the “rigorous” curriculum outlined in the State Scholars initiative, in which some 300 school districts in 15 states are participating. A House bill closely reflected that administration proposal.

But the legislation evolved. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, responding to rising anxiety over America’s economic competitiveness, sponsored legislation establishing new grants to college juniors and seniors majoring in math, science or engineering. In December, Republican lawmakers working with the administration grafted the House and Senate bills together, adding language requiring the secretary to recognize at least one rigorous high school program in each state. Democratic lawmakers said they were barely consulted.

“We were shut almost completely out of the process,” said Representative George Miller of California, the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The new one-year grants, designed to supplement the broader, $13 billion Pell Grant program, range from $750 for low-income college freshmen and $1,300 for sophomores to $4,000 for juniors and seniors who are pursuing majors in the physical, life or computer sciences, mathematics, technology, engineering or certain foreign languages. Applicants must have a 3.0 grade point average to be eligible as sophomores, juniors and seniors.

The administration’s original proposal would have been simple to administer. But under the proposal approved by the Senate, Department of Education officials would need to scrutinize high school courses of study and discuss curricular matters with local officials to a degree that Washington officials never have.

“We haven’t actually sat down yet and decided how we’re going to go about it,” Ms. Stroup said.

Pell Grants have been based on financial need, but eligibility for the new grants is more complicated, with requirements changing twice as students advance through college. The requirement that students maintain a B average, for instance, will force the department to decide how to handle applicants attending institutions like Hampshire College and Sarah Lawrence College, which do not give letter or numeric grades. With little time before crucial decisions must be made, some educators said they were expecting considerable confusion.

“This will be like trying to land a 747 on an airstrip built for a single-engine plane,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “And we’re all going to have to fly in by the seat of our pants.”

The department’s most politically ticklish determinations, however, appear to be those involving which high school programs are rigorous.

Department officials said that in the 35 states that do not participate in the State Scholars initiative they hoped to find that governors or other authorities had established programs recognizing rigorous courses of study. The National Governors Association last year issued an “Action Agenda” that urged the authorities in every state to define a rigorous curriculum as a requisite for high school graduation, but their model included no recommendations for science or foreign languages. Dane Linn, director of the association’s education division, said it was not clear whether states had moved to enact the agenda.

Some have developed home-grown programs that the department could easily recognize as rigorous. Indiana, for instance, has designated a challenging curriculum it calls the Core 40, and more than a dozen states, including New York, extend higher-rated diplomas to students who complete more difficult coursework. Virginia awards an “advanced studies high school diploma” to students who complete four years of English, math, science and history, three years of foreign language, and other requirements.