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Oversight Is Set for Beleaguered U.S. Reading Program

Ok, George Miller and Ted Kennedy, why wouldn't you listen to us? Read our evidence? Instead, you just keep glad-handing the Business Roundtable.

By Diana Jean Schemo

WASHINGTON, March 14 â Under attack for improprieties uncovered in its showcase literacy program for low-income children, the Department of Education will convene an outside advisory committee to oversee the program, known as Reading First, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Wednesday.

Facing tough questions at a hearing before a Senate subcommittee considering appropriations for the Bush administrationâs signature education law, known as No Child Left Behind, Ms. Spellings also promised to clean up the reading program in other ways.

In about a half dozen reports in recent months, the departmentâs inspector general detailed irregularities in the program, which awards $1 billion a year in grants to states to buy reading materials and teacher training. The reports also found that federal officials overlooked conflicts of interest among private contractors who advised states applying for the grants. Ms. Spellings said her officeâs general counsel would examine the records of contractors accused of conflicts of interest, and remove those with actual conflicts from any role in the program.

Her promises came as Reading First faces growing attacks while heading for reauthorization. Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said this week that the problems with the program âmake it even more difficult to persuade a number of people, including me, to vote to renew programs like No Child Left Behind,â of which Reading First is a part.

Acknowledging that âthereâs certainly room for improvementâ in Reading First, Ms. Spellings told the Senate panel Wednesday that her department had removed the programâs leaders; expanded its staff to seven employees from two, to reduce its reliance on so many private contractors with the potential for conflicts; and accepted all the recommendations of the departmentâs inspector general.

âIâd hate to throw the baby out with the bathwater,â the secretary said, adding that despite the problems, the program was improving reading among poor children.

At Wednesdayâs hearing, Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is the subcommitteeâs chairman, said he, too, was disturbed by the accusations against Reading First. âIt has an odor that I donât like,â Mr. Harkin said. But he said he was not considering eliminating financing.

After Ms. Spellings left the hearing, Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, whose Success for All reading program was shut out of many states under Reading First, said he did not think the secretaryâs promises went far enough. âI havenât seen the slightest glimmer of even intention to change,â Dr. Slavin said.

Because schools had already chosen their readng curriculums, promises to clean up Reading First now meant little, he said. He compared them to finding eight innings into a baseball game with a score of 23 to 0 that the opposing team had been playing with cork bats.

âThen they say, âFrom now on, weâre using honest bats.â â Dr. Slavin said. âIâm sorry, itâs 23 to nothing. You canât just say, âFrom now on.â â

Reading First was required by law to finance only reading programs backed by âscientifically based reading research,â and the Education Department was prohibited from mandating or even endorsing specific curriculums. But the program has been plagued by accusations that states were steered toward a handful of commercial reading programs and testing instruments.

With only two Education Department employees in charge of the vast program, the administration relied largely on private contractors to advise states on their applications for grants, screen products for scientific validity and weigh applications. The inspector general found that several of these contractors wrote reading programs and testing instruments that were competing for money, and that they gave preference to products to which they had ties.

Ms. Spellings has maintained, and said again under questioning Wednesday, that the problems with Reading First occurred before she became education secretary.

She denied accusations from a former political appointee at the department, Michael Petrilli, who said she had essentially run Reading First from her post as domestic policy adviser at the White House. Mr. Petrilli is now a vice president at a nonprofit education research foundation. Asked about Madison, Wis., where educators gave up $2 million in Reading First money because they would have had to drop a so-called balanced literacy reading program that they said had been successful for the district, Ms. Spellings said she was unfamiliar with the particulars of Madisonâs reading program. But she defended Reading Firstâs ground rules under her predecessor, Rod Paige, saying the program did not exclude specific reading curriculums, but intended only to ensure that they were backed by research.

— Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times


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