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Ga. whistleblower shakes up U.S. Dept. of Education

Cindy Cupp deserves kudos. She is the first whistle-blower to file a complaint with the Inspector General about the government mishandling of Reading First. And she's still going, collecting information, documenting fraud, and whistle-blowing.

By Bridget Gutierrez

Savannah ΓΆ€” Cindy Cupp strode into the kindergarten classroom at Heard Elementary Academy and launched into an introduction.

"Good morning, boys and girls! My name is Dr. Cupp, and I'm the reading doctor," she enthused as a girl giggled. "I'm not going to give shots or anything. I'm just going to listen to you read."

Cupp has been teaching children to read for 35 years. She's so good at it, she rose to the top ΓΆ€” becoming Georgia's director of reading instruction ΓΆ€” before she retired and created her own brand of "Dick and Jane" textbooks. But four years ago, Cupp found herself in a fight over her storybooks that led from her port city all the way to Washington.

Cupp had no idea what she was getting into in 2003 when she tried to have her "Dr. Cupp Readers" approved for use in Reading First, a major federal initiative promising to make all children successful readers by fourth grade. Cupp just figured her company could benefit from the $6 billion flowing to schools for new reading programs.

Now, after years of pursuing perceived wrongs that blocked Cupp Publishers from winning lucrative contracts, she stands as a key whistle-blower whose complaints helped touch off a federal audit of the Georgia Department of Education, a shake-up at the U.S. Department of Education and possible congressional hearings on conflicts of interest that may have compromised Reading First.

"This is what one person on a mission can do," said Dick Allington, a University of Tennessee education professor who has been critical of the handling of Reading First, a linchpin of President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind Act. "It was just sheer persistence on her part."

Nearly 150 elementary schools, including some in Atlanta and in Clayton and DeKalb counties, are serving 53,000 Georgia students through Reading First. So far, nearly $100 million has been spent statewide on textbooks, training and reading specialists.

Cupp's curriculum ΓΆ€” which teaches children to read with phonics instruction, where students decipher the sounds letters make, and by tutoring in common words ΓΆ€” is used in about 80 elementary schools. Only three are part of Reading First.

State and federal officials have said mistakes made in implementing the program have been corrected, but deny taking any intentional actions that may have favored big national publishers with connections over smaller companies such as Cupp's.

"It is a very effective program," said Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Education. "It's very regrettable to see it viewed in this light, rather than in the light of its merits."

Turned down by state

When Sheree Bryant, an associate superintendent for instruction in Butts County, wanted to apply for Reading First funds, her school system about 45 miles south of Atlanta already had used Cupp's program in one class with success. But the state education department, which was doling out the grants, initially turned down Butts' request, which included funding for Cupp's material.

Reading First rules required use of materials proved effective through research, a hallmark of the program. Some experts the state hired to review systems' applications for Reading First funds had never seen Cupp's curriculum, which uses stories about "Jack" and "Jilly" ΓΆ€” a pair of cape-wearing turtles ΓΆ€” to teach new words. Yet, according to Bryant and Cupp, her books received poor marks, dooming Butts' proposal.

After Cupp complained to state officials, they relented, but only allowed Butts County to use Cupp's readers on a limited basis. By then, Cupp said, most systems had selected other materials.

Clifford Johnson, a reading expert at Georgia State University, which is aligned with another literacy program called Reading Recovery, also complained to the State Board of Education about department officials.

"They let it be known if you didn't adopt a certain type of material you wouldn't get Reading First funds," Johnson said. "Now, Cindy and I disagree on her program. But ... there ought to be freedom of choice and fair access to the public money."

After months of feeling thwarted in her attempts to get her series approved for Reading First schools, a friend suggested Cupp contact the Office of the Inspector General, a state agency created to root out corruption, waste and abuse in government. In March 2005, Cupp filed a complaint alleging that, as a small-time publisher, she was largely prevented from selling to Reading First schools.

An Oregon connection

The day she met with the agency, Cupp started to wonder why department officials acted the way they had. Why, for instance, did Georgia use a University of Oregon guide to screen textbooks such as Cupp's before they could be used in Reading First classrooms?

Unable to sleep, Cupp logged on to the Internet, began running searches on the university, and stumbled onto a newspaper article ΓΆ€” "Oregon education professors wield influence with Bush" ΓΆ€” that reported that the university had developed methods and a program for teaching students to read that had influenced the president's policies. One of those professors, the article said, was a longtime adviser to Bush.

For the first time in two years, Cupp said, she realized her problems went beyond Georgia. "I cried," Cupp recalled. "I thought: If there's that much strength ... that's coming from that high up in government, then what did one little person like me think I was gonna do?"

What Cupp did was begin researching the players behind Reading First, using e-mail and the Internet. She began finding professional connections between experts hired to assist with Reading First's national rollout, including some of those Oregon professors, and large textbook publishers for whom they also worked.

Emboldened, Cupp sent a complaint to the inspector general at the U.S. Education Department that May, alleging that Reading First had been rigged to force schools to use a handful of select products. Two weeks later, Robert Slavin, an education researcher at Johns Hopkins University, filed a similar complaint, saying his program, Success For All, also had been shut out. In August 2005, the Reading Recovery Council of North America followed with a third plea for an investigation.

"She was the first to submit a complaint. We would have done so anyway, but she gave us, perhaps, a model and a little courage to go forward with it," said Slavin, who began probing Reading First when he saw schools drop his program to get funding. "Filing a complaint like this is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do. You don't do it unless you have exhausted all other alternatives."

Conflicts of interest

Much, but not all, of what Cupp found through her Internet sleuthing turned out to be true. In two recent reports, the federal inspector general gave a scathing review of the program that detailed rampant favoritism for certain teaching methods; conflicts of interest with consultants, including some of those Oregon professors, who were hired to advise states on products they themselves had authored; and willful disregard for the law, which prohibits the federal government from dictating specific curriculums.

Last month, the agency issued an audit of Georgia's program, which also backed Cupp's claims of bias, although she was not named. State officials have played down the audit, which charged that they ran the program with no written policies, hired consultants who had blatant conflicts of interest or didn't meet standards, and created mandates for publishers such as Cupp that were not part of approved guidelines.

Wanda Barrs, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, said through a spokesman that she was pleased the audit didn't find any malfeasance. "I know other states have been audited and the resulting reports were much harsher than what Georgia received."

Today, Cupp says her phone frequently rings with calls from staffers at the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, which is considering holding hearings on Reading First, and from journalists, including from ABC News and the New York Times, which has published a profile of her. This month, she received an award from the Wisconsin State Reading Association for her role in exposing the problems that led to a shake-up of federal employees overseeing Reading First and stronger policies to avoid conflicts of interest.

Now Cupp is waiting to hear whether the U.S. Department of Justice will open another investigation as she continues her life's work: visiting schools to assist teachers, checking students' progress and prescribing remedies for those who struggle.

As she walked down the hallway to leave Heard Elementary recently, Cupp stopped abruptly. "This is my song, can you hear it?" she asked as she stepped toward a classroom where kindergartners were singing.

"These are the letters of the alphabet! No we are not finished yet! Come join in and clap with me! As we learn the letters from A to Z!"

Within seconds, Cupp was in front of the class ΓΆ€” smiling, clapping and leading her song.

Atlanta Journal Constitution


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