Pundits' Battle Exposes the Politics of Research

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In the frequently quarrelsome world of federal education policy, few people have spanned the partisan divide as successfully as John F. "Jack" Jennings.

The former Democratic power broker on Capitol Hill has become one of the most-quoted education experts in the country, often called independent or bipartisan and cited for leading the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. Search for "Jack Jennings CEP" on Google, and you get nearly 24,000 hits.

But in Washington, finding common ground in educational research is not easy. Greg Forster, a senior fellow at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, has attacked Jennings and his center, sparking a dispute that has become the talk of education think tanks.

Their clash, and the way the media have covered it, exemplifies how the debate over the federal No Child Left Behind law often breaks down along political lines.

In an article headlined "Donkey in Disguise," posted on the Web site of the quarterly policy journal Education Next, http://www.educationnext.org/ , Forster accuses Jennings of labeling the center's studies on state education policy as nonpartisan and independent while choosing research methods that always point to a Democratic Party solution: more federal money and fewer rules by the Bush administration.

"There's no hope for improving education policy if we don't keep the facts and evidence distinct from the public-school system's party (and often partisan) line," Forster concluded.

In an interview, Jennings said the center's reports are professionally done and are welcomed by Democrats and Republicans. Even as a Democratic staffer on the Hill, he said, "I always tried to be bipartisan. Almost every meeting that I convened was for both Democrats and Republicans, and the results were that nearly every law I helped to write was passed by large bipartisan majorities."

But that was before the two major parties found themselves so bitterly split on such issues as using tax-funded vouchers to send public school students to private schools -- an idea supported by the Republican Party and Forster's foundation -- and how much more money is needed to make schools better, with the Democratic Party arguing that Republicans aren't spending enough.

Forster said in the article that Jennings is wrong to depend on surveys of state education officials for his information about how much more money is needed to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind. "The experts have an overwhelming incentive to inflate their cost estimates, even if only unconsciously," Forster said, because that "will produce a political impetus to spend more money on education practitioners."

Jennings said "professional judgment," the research method Forster criticizes, is used by policymakers of both parties in several states, as well as by major research organizations and some state courts.

Beyond the argument over methodology, the part of Forster's article that has been embraced most enthusiastically by education experts on both sides of the political aisle is his suggestion that media organizations affix unfair and inaccurate political labels to some people and groups.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Reagan administration education official who runs the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and is on the Education Next editorial board, said Forster is right to say Jennings's "politics and opinions color all that he does, says and publishes." But, Finn added: "This is no crime. Indeed, it's the norm in Washington.

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