WASHINGTON—When the Kansas City public schools lost federal money for their new reading program, Robert Slavin was plenty distressed.
Slavin, who'd designed the program used in Kansas City, had seen the pattern all too often: Local officials try to get government grants to help pay for his scripted Success for All reading program, only to realize that it's fallen out of bureaucratic favor in Washington.
"There have been many of these decisions—this is only the latest," said Slavin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Fueled by a growing list of such complaints, the House Education and Labor Committee is looking into whether the Bush administration steered contracts to its favorite vendors, shutting out Slavin and other competitors.
And the Education Department's inspector general has asked the Justice Department to examine allegations of mismanagement and conflicts of interest that are swirling around the $6 billion federal grant program known as Reading First, a centerpiece of the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law.
Inspector General John Higgins said his office began investigating Reading First in May 2005 after receiving complaints of favoritism. He told the Education and Labor Committee that the law calls for a balanced panel of experts to review grant applications but the department had created a panel that had professional ties to a specific reading program.
Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, the committee's chairman, said three people involved in the reviewing process benefited financially—either directly or indirectly—when the panel distributed grants.
At a committee hearing April 20, three review panel members acknowledged benefiting from the sale of an assessment product called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Learning Skills. One of the panel members was a co-author of the product, and the company in which he owned a 50 percent share had received more than $1.3 million in royalty and other payments from the sale of DIBELS. Two other review panel members were co-authors of a reading intervention product that was packaged with DIBELS, and they each had received about $150,000 in royalty payments from sales of their product.
All three denied any conflict of interest, saying they didn't review grant proposals that involved their own products. They said their products were selling because of their popularity, not because of any pressure from Washington.
At the hearing, Miller charged that investigators had found examples "where states were essentially bullied" to use favored reading programs in order to get federal aid.
Starr Lewis, an associate commissioner with the Kentucky Department of Education, testified that Christopher Doherty—who managed the program for five years before leaving the position last year—had pressured the state to drop one of its reading assessments and that it had received federal funding soon after doing so.
The Bush administration is defending the Reading First program, part of President Bush's effort to get all schoolchildren reading by third grade. The administration points to rising test scores since the program was launched in 2002.
Doherty said the Education Department never maintained a list of favored reading programs. "No one was ever told they must use a certain program or programs instead of others."
One of the program's biggest defenders is the president himself. Speaking at a school in Harlem on Tuesday, Bush said: "I appreciate the fact that nationwide, 9-year-olds have made more progress in five years than in the previous 28 years combined on these tests in reading. ... The pipeline is beginning to be full of little readers that are competent readers."
In a report earlier this month, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the percentage of first-graders who were meeting or exceeding reading proficiency had increased by 14 percentage points—from 43 percent to 57 percent—from 2004 to 2006, while the percentage of third-graders meeting or exceeding proficiency rose by 7 percentage points—from 36 percent to 43 percent, during the same period.
Spellings is sure to be in the hot seat on May 10 when she testifies to the House Education and Labor Committee on the department's oversight of the program. Congress approved it as a way to help public schools improve reading instruction by giving them federal money to pay for teacher training and reading materials.
Miller said congressional investigators had been investigating the program for months, reviewing thousands of documents and interviewing dozens of people.
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the head of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, charged that the Bush administration had a record "of political manipulation and cronyism that have tainted" the reading program. He said "schools across the country were pressured into using specific reading curricula that were backed by the programs' administrators' political agendas."
Miller and Kennedy were strong supporters of Bush's original No Child Left Behind law but have been critical of how it's administered.
As the investigations continue, Democratic leaders are promising to tighten controls over the program.
Kennedy has introduced a bill that would require federal employees and contractors involved in Reading First to file yearly financial disclosures showing any ties to publishers or organizations that benefit from the program. His bill also would increase monitoring in an attempt to make sure that no federal employee was trying to influence or control decisions on local curricula.
For state-by-state information on the Reading First program, see:
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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