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Lawmaker raises concerns over Reading First program in hearing on Education Department's budget

Finally. A leading Congressman expresses concern over Reading First Revelations.

By Josh Keller


A top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives told Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on Monday that he was troubled by news-media reports of favoritism and conflicts of interest in a federal program known as Reading First and suggested that he "would have a tough time" continuing to approve federal funds for it.

The Congressman, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, cited allegations that the Department of Education appeared to use the program's grant-application process to steer states toward favored curricular materials. Such actions, if they occurred, could be a violation of federal law. Mr. Obey's comments came during a subcommittee hearing on the department's budget for the 2008 fiscal year.

Reading First is a $900-million-a-year program established under the No Child Left Behind Act that provides grants to states to improve reading instruction for low-income children in kindergarten through third grade.

A series of reports by the department's Office of Inspector General have alleged mismanagement and conflicts of interest in the program. Among the allegations, which remain under dispute, are reports that scholars at three universities who were affiliated with Reading First's three "technical assistance centers" also had relationships with companies that produced and marketed materials that were approved for use under the program.

In a written statement last fall, Ms. Spellings expressed confidence in the program and said that the problems identified by the inspector general reflected "individual mistakes" that occurred before she started as secretary in 2005. She also said she was "moving swiftly" to put in place the inspector general's recommendations.

During Monday's hearing, lawmakers from both parties sharply questioned cuts in the Bush administration's proposed budget for programs in the No Child Left Behind law.

Several Democrats also criticized the administration's proposed spending for higher education, which would increase Pell Grant levels in part by cutting other programs -- a scheme that one education lobbyist said would "rob Peter to pay Pell."

"My district has a lot of Peters," said Mr. Obey.

— Josh Keller
Chronicle of Higher Education


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