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Richard Belcher Investigates Reading Grants

Richard Belcher

ATLANTA -- A woman, who was once Georgia’s top reading expert, accuses the State Department of Education of unfairly handling the competition for tens of millions of dollars in federal grants. The “Reading First” program is distributing billions of dollars nationwide. The handling of those grants is now the subject of a federal audit here and in other states. Richard Belcher has our Whistleblower 2 Investigation.

Georgia is in line for as much as $200 million of the “Reading First” money. As a retired educator and small-time publisher, Cindy Cupp knew some Georgia schools would want to buy her materials with their federal grants. But, it turned into a bitter fight when she suspected her program was being pushed aside in favor of others.

An educator for 30 years – including 3 as Georgia’s top reading official – Dr. Cindy Cupp now distributes her Cupp Readers out of a small office in Savannah. They’re used by kindergarten and first grade students in 66 Georgia schools, but she’s convinced her material is good enough to be in far more.

“When a child or an adult reaches my book 60, they are not illiterate. They are readers,” she says.

At Dougherty Elementary in Butts County – 45 miles south of Atlanta – teachers have been using Cupp Readers for 4 years with excellent results.

“The date that we have shows it’s been effective,” Butts County Superintendent, Dr. Alan White says.

But Dougherty Elementary is limited in how much it can rely on Cindy Cupp’s materials. When the school tried to win a $237,000 federal reading grant 2 years ago, it told the State Department of Education that it would rely exclusively on Cupp Readers. And twice – the D.O.E. said “No”.

“It was pretty clear, to tell you the truth. It was like, “You want the funding? Then this, these are the series that you must use,” Dr. White says. We asked if Dr. Cupp was on the list and Dr. White responded, “Dr. Cupp was not on the list.”

The school official who directed that grant application says the rejection were based, in part, on findings by experts who hadn’t even seen Dr. Cupp’s materials.

“It was from evaluators who had not seen her program from other states,” Assistant Butts County Superintendent, Dr. Sheree Bryant says.

“It was just said, “That’s not on our list, so it can’t be on yours,” Dr. White says.

Not until Butts County said it would use a reading program from a larger, better known publishing house, did the state approve the grant which Butts County desperately needed. Cindy cupp says the quality of her materials is not the issue.

“We have never had anyone that has said to us that ‘Your material did not meet the standards.’ Not at the federal level (and) not at the state level, not at the local level,” Cupp says.

Dr. Cupp filed formal complaints last year with the Georgia Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Education. Among her accusations is that a state education official erroneously told local school systems that her reading programs had to be evaluated in a certain way before a system could adopt them.

“He wrote me a letter on May 11, 2004 that said that he removed the restriction,” Cupp said. We asked if she though it cost her business and she said, “Oh, definitely.”

The state D.O.E. acknowledges that a mistake was made, which it blames on bad information from Washington. The department says it corrected the mistake quickly and clearly. And the state says Cindy Cupp’s materials are only for kindergarten and first graders, whereas most programs are for kindergarten through third grade.

— Richard Belcher


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