War rages over grants
Since 2003, Georgia school districts have been eligible to receive more than $200 million in federal Reading First grants to buy textbooks, train teachers and hire reading coaches.
Cindy Cupp, a former state education official who now publishes a beginning reading program, figured some of that money would come her way. Her program, Dr. Cupp Readers, already was being used in about 100 Georgia schools.
But Cupp has been largely shut out of the Reading First program.
A former reading and curriculum director for the state Department of Education, Cupp says the grant review process has been set up in a way that all but forced school systems to select from a short, unofficial list of reading programs that excluded small publishers like hers.
Cupp, a feisty, fast-talking, 56-year-old Savannah resident, is fighting back. She's filed 13 complaints with the state inspector general's office, claiming that the state Department of Education improperly administered the Reading First program.
"I feel like the process has not been above-board, that there were hidden agendas," Cupp said.
Cupp has spent about two years researching the issue, e-mailing local and national education officials and compiling boxes of documents — many obtained through the state's Open Records Act — she says prove her case.
Cupp alleges a series of improper actions by state education officials, including:
• School districts' grant applications were given low marks if the reading programs they chose were not on an unofficial "short list" of programs, all from big publishing houses.
• Educators hired by the state to review school systems' grant applications went beyond their scope. While they were supposed to only review the districts' selection process, they went further and evaluated the quality of the reading programs the districts chose.
• An evaluator denied a district's application after raising concerns about Dr. Cupp Readers. The evaluator later acknowledged never seeing Cupp's program or reviewing it.
Cupp also said the state required that her program be reviewed by a Reading First assistance center in Florida before any school systems could include it in their applications. However, federal rules do not include such a requirement, and the state backed away after Cupp complained.
Georgia education officials acknowledge making some mistakes, but insist they were only trying to help school systems navigate the complicated Reading First system.
"We're not telling the systems which products to use," said Judson Turner, general counsel for the state Department of Education. "Our primary focus here in Georgia is to take this federal money and take it to school systems so these kids can have access to resources and their achievement in reading can improve."
Cupp said she is pressing the issue primarily to ensure school systems have the right to choose their own reading programs.
Phil Walker, a state deputy inspector general, said he couldn't comment on the case because it was still under investigation. But he said Cupp is a "very credible lady. Whatever she shows you, it's fairly credible."
The inspector general's office is expected to issue a final report when the investigation is complete, Walker said.
$90 million awarded
Nationwide, about $1 billion in Reading First grants are distributed each year to schools with low-income students who are behind in reading. In Georgia, about $90 million has been awarded to 104 schools in 37 districts, according to the state Department of Education. In metro Atlanta, only Clayton County has received funding.
Under the program's rules, school districts may choose whatever reading programs they want, as long as they are "scientifically proven" to be effective. But a growing number of critics nationwide say the program steers money to a select few textbook companies.
The Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan, Washington-based research organization, recently issued a report on Reading First that suggested the program's rules and regulations were leading school districts to select similar reading programs. The report found that many states, including Georgia, are using the same evaluation materials — written by professors at the University of Oregon — to review Reading First grants to make sure the programs selected are scientifically based.
"It seems as if the use of the same [review] material is leading to school districts using the same reading programs," said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center for Education Policy.
Some critics point out that University of Oregon professors are authors of many of the reading programs that are being funded, a potential conflict of interest.
In Georgia, seven different programs were selected by districts to be used as their primary, or "core" reading texts. The list includes programs from publishing giants Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, MacMillan, McGraw-Hill and Scott Foresman.
Across the nation, Cupp is not the only publisher crying foul.
Last month, officials with the Success for All reading program asked the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general to investigate the Reading First program. The Maryland-based company says the Reading First guidelines give an unfair advantage to reading programs from the nation's big publishers.
Cupp program praised
Students who use Dr. Cupp Readers work at their own pace through 16-page booklets — 30 in both kindergarten and first grade. Time is split between phonics — learning to sound out words — and sight reading — learning to recognize whole words at a glance.
Districts using the program include Henry, Rockdale and Fayette counties, though those systems are not receiving any Reading First grants.
Butts County, just outside metro Atlanta, initially tried to include Dr. Cupp Readers on its Reading First application. The small district had been using the program in one class and wanted to expand it.
"We find it to be very effective for our students," said Sheree Bryant, the district's associate superintendent for instruction.
But Butts' application was rejected after a review by a panel of independent educators. At least two panelists gave low scores, expressing concerns about the Dr. Cupp Readers program, effectively rejecting the application.
One reviewer wrote that she was "very concerned" about the reading program, according to an evaluation form obtained by Cupp. The reviewer later admitted in a letter to Cupp's attorney that she had never reviewed or even seen the program.
When Butts removed Dr. Cupp Readers from its plan, the application was approved, Bryant said.
Under the grant, the state has allowed Butts to use Dr. Cupp Readers, but only as a supplemental reading program.
Despite the problems, Bryant has good things to say about Reading First.
The program has helped her buy books for a new school and train teachers to become better reading instructors, she said.
"We encountered some stumbling blocks in the beginning, but we have worked with the state and we have overcome them," Bryant said.
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