OIG Review Questions Ethics in Reading First Program
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has released a scathing audit, an internal review of the Bush administration's billion-dollar-a-year Reading First program. The report says that the Education Department ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted.
State educational agencies have received over $4.8 billion in Reading First grants, helping about 5,600 schools. The program is reported to have served more than 1.7 million students in kindergarten through third grade.
Recently U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced awards of $101,687,216 in grants to 32 recipients in 25 states, the objective being to improve the language and early literacy skills of young children.
The OIG audit doesn't hold back in its view that the Reading First program is riddled with mismanagement and has more that its share of conflicts of interest. It also suggested that laws may have been broken in that the department dictated to schools which curriculum they must use.
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released its audit on September 22, 2006, and it's listed as ED-OIG/I13-F0017. You can read the entire document here in Adobe Acrobat .pdf format or as a Microsoft Word .doc file.
When one read's the audit report, a particular individual is noted repeatedly (over 100 times), but not by name, but the title of Reading First Director. The person holding that title within the Department of Education was Chris Doherty.
The audit report says that program review panels were stacked with people who shared the director's views and that only favored publishers of reading curricula could get money.
In one e-mail, Director Doherty told a staff member to come down hard on a company he didn't support. The report states that Doherty wrote, "They are trying to crash our party, and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags."
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said that the Department will adopt all the audit's recommendations quickly. She also pledged a review of every single Reading First grant her agency has approved.
Reading first is crown jewel of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's education law. Its goal is to help young children read through scientifically proven programs. A separate review recently found that the effort is helping schools raise achievement.
From the start, the program has been hit by a number of accusations of impropriety, which lead to several ongoing audits. The new audit from the OIG raised serious questions with the program's credibility.
Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, was angry and blunt in expressing his feelings about the report, stating, "Everyone at the Department of Education who was involved in perpetrating this fraud on school districts should be fired – not suspended, not reassigned, not admonished, but fired. This was not an accident. This was a concerted effort to corrupt the process on behalf of partisan supporters, and taxpayers and schoolchildren are the ones who got harmed by it."
Secretary Spellings stated that the problems unearthed in the report occurred in the early days of the program, which began in 2002, before she was secretary. She also noted that those responsible have already left the agency or been reassigned.
- Botched the way it picked a panel to review grant applications, raising questions over whether grants were approved as the law requires.
- Screened grant reviewers for conflicts of interest, but then failed to identify six who had a clear conflict based on their industry connections.
- Did not let states see the comments of experts who reviewed their applications.
- Required states to meet conditions that weren't part of the law.
- Tried to downplay elements of the law it didn't like when working with states.
As noted earlier, the audit doesn't name Doherty, referring to him as the Reading First Director. It says he repeatedly used his influence to steer money toward states that used a reading approach he favored called Direct Instruction (DI).
The OIG investigation found that four states (New York, Nevada, Virginia, and Connecticut) and one territory (Puerto Rico) were awarded grants, even though their final applications on record show a Chair Panel Summary rating of "Disapproval."
The audit also faults other officials who had a big hand in Reading First, including Susan B. Neuman, the former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education.
Spellings, who became secretary in 2005, said she is not aware of any effort to favor certain reading programs. "I'm doing everything I can at this point," she said. "I can't undo what's been done."
This isn't the first time that questions have been raised about this issue. Robert Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University education professor who co-founded the Success for All Foundation and spent years researching effective reading programs, said he watched in disbelief as the nonprofit lost business because states chose to adopt other programs favored by U.S. officials.
Slavin is said to have prompted the federal investigation by going to the inspector general in May last year and telling authorities what he thought was going on. "There is nothing in the report that we haven't been saying for two years," Slavin said yesterday. "It is a vindication of sorts."
Mr. Doherty recently resigned from the department to “return to the private sector,” Katherine McLane, a department spokeswoman said. Doherty has declined to comment.
Expect to hear more on this topic over the coming weeks and months, for this just may be the tip of a very large iceberg, so to speak.
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