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NCLB Outrages

Reading First contracts come under scrutiny

Let's hope the national [honky] press picks this up.

by: Gale Courey Toensing

WASHINGTON - The inspector general of the Interior Department has received a complaint from two Indian educators who say the BIA violated ''Indian preference'' guidelines in awarding contracts for the six-year, $6 billion Reading First program, a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Nicole Bowman, Mohican, owner of Bowman Performance Consulting LLC, of Wisconsin, and Debbie Bryan, Cherokee, owner of Bryan Consulting and Training of Oklahoma, allege that non-Indian consultants administering the BIA's $30 million set aside for Reading First contracts, ignored their status as qualified, eligible American Indian-owned businesses and awarded the bulk of contracts to non-Indians with no experience teaching Indian children on reservations.

''They claimed they didn't know we were Indians and it's very clear from my application that I'm Indian. We are two very qualified Indian-owned businesses and we were bypassed in order to give preference to non-Indian vendors who have never stepped foot on an American Indian reservation and have no published work showing they can teach Indian children to read using science-based techniques that I'm certified in,'' Bowman told Indian Country Today.

The complaint was lodged with the U.S. Department of Education late last year and has been turned over to Interior's inspector general.

Roy Kime, a spokesman at the inspector general's office, acknowledged receipt of the complaint to ICT on May 8.

''We have received a request for an investigation and that is being considered,'' Kime said.

Kime said he could not predict the timeline of an investigation.

''The information would have been forwarded to the headquarters here in Washington, and we would send it to the regional office involved with the matter, assuming they felt here at headquarters that it was worth pursuing, then the field office would do an investigation, and it completely depends on the depth and breadth of the matter as to how long that would take. Some are done in a week, some in a year; it all depends on what's involved,'' Kime said.

Nedra Darling, a BIA spokesman in Washington, said she was not aware of the complaint, which involves consultants in the agency's Southwest regional office. Darling took a list of questions from ICT to research, but could not respond by press time.

The recent movement on the complaint, which has languished for about six months, may have been prompted by a letter from U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., assistant majority whip, encouraging the inspector general to investigate allegations from his ''constituent Nicole Bowman that federal contracting procedures were not following in the awards made for Reading First.''

In a parallel action, the General Accounting Office is investigating the Reading First program to study what changes have occurred in curricula and how states are awarding grants to local education agencies.

While the GAO study is not linked to the Indian preference issues, the investigation was sparked by similar allegations that certain contractors and publishers were given unfair preference in gaining contracts.

''We're trying to coordinate with the inspector general. We're complementing each other's work, but not overlapping,'' said Marny Shaw, a GAO spokesman.

Shaw confirmed that one-half of one percent of Reading First's total $6 billion allocation was set aside for the BIA.

According to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, contracts or subcontracts with American Indian organizations or businesses that benefit Indians require ''to the greatest extent feasible, preference and opportunities for training and employment in connection with the administration of such contracts'' are to be given to Indian organizations and Indian-owned businesses.

Bowman has a bachelor's degree in early childhood and elementary education; a master's degree in curriculum and instruction; and she is completing her doctoral studies in education leadership and policy analysis this spring at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

She is certified by the BIA as a Reading First Service Provider; an 8(a) Women, Native American and Small Disadvantaged Business; and a No Child Left Behind Service Provider, among others. She has published a number of papers, including a science-based commissioned study on the No Child Left Behind Act's affect on American Indian early childhood learning.

Bryan holds a master's degree in counseling psychology and is a licensed professional counselor and certified school psychologist with more than 20 years' experience in the field.

Indian preference was not included in the requests for proposals for the Reading First contracts. Bowman and Bryan's firms were among about a dozen companies who certified for the contracts through an open-bid process by the Center for School Improvement, a division of the BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs in Albuquerque. Contracts were to be awarded to companies with extensive experience teaching reading to Indian children.

''We were told that we qualified for contracts worth $500,000 a year for three years. The bottom line: We ended up with total contracts of $8,000 each from the millions of dollars the BIA gave out to less-qualified companies. We got minimal work in 2003 and 2004, and nothing in 2005,'' Bryan said.

Bryan said she worked for the IHS for more than 20 years and ''there was absolute Indian preference there and it's supposed to be that way with the BIA.''

Bowman said she is still ''reeling'' from the attitudes expressed at a contract meeting with the BIA consultants and potential vendors back in 2004 when she challenged their qualifications to teach Indian children.

''I said, 'Which one of you has produced a science-based study under No Child Left Behind to show you have proven your curriculum, your assessment tools and your teaching strategies have taught Indian children to read and raised their achievement?' The room was dead quiet, and this white woman said, 'Well, my aunt was once crowned a Cherokee princess at our state fair.' It was just nothing but humiliation and racism and all the non-Indian people laughed,'' Bowman said.

Bowman said she will continue to pursue the complaint as far as it will go.

''I'm not doing it for popularity of the money,'' she said. ''Our kids are on meth, they wrap themselves around trees and they die because they don't have education to help them get jobs and feel good about themselves. You don't know how many funerals I go to. The equalizer is education.''

— Gale Courey Toensing
Indian Country Today


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