Textbook scandal reaches Congress
By Greg Toppo
A slow-motion scandal surrounding a federal multibillion-dollar reading program has its first congressional hearing this week, but it remains to be seen whether the scrutiny will shed any new light on a complex, contradictory tale of textbooks, tests and allegations of federal arm-twisting.
A key part of President Bush's efforts to remake public education, Reading First was launched in 2002, giving schools $1 billion a year to improve reading in early elementary grades. Five years later, early evidence suggests that it may be helping. But investigators say a handful of advisers have railroaded schools into buying textbooks and other materials that they and associates developed.
The result: a conflict-of-interest case that took two years to jell as investigators in the Education Department connected the dots. To date, no criminal charges have been filed, but Democrats, now in control of Congress, promise to give the case a full airing.
"The purpose of Reading First is to help schoolchildren learn to read, not feather the nests of a select group of well-connected individuals and organizations," says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Miller and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are conducting probes. Kennedy plans hearings later this spring.
Miller will preside at the first hearing Friday, which brings together Chris Doherty, the program's former director, and three top advisers.
Atop the witness list: John Higgins, the Education Department's inspector general, who has issued six reports detailing how Reading First leaders and contractors looked the other way at possible conflicts of interest among advisers and others ΓΆ€” several of whom authored textbooks. He also found that Doherty and others strong-armed states and school districts into choosing from a small selection of materials that stress phonics.
In one e-mail Higgins cited, Doherty said of a publisher whose books downplayed phonics, "They are trying to crash our party, and we need to beat the (expletive) out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags."
Doherty quit in September after the report's release.
Higgins also found that a 2002 conference for educators focused too exclusively on a few programs, creating what investigators said was a perception that there was an "approved list" of texts.
A related probe last month by the Government Accountability Office found that officials from 10 states complained that the Education Department told them to eliminate reading programs or tests that they didn't endorse. Federal rules prohibit the department from endorsing any curriculum.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who until 2005 was a White House domestic policy adviser, says the troubles occurred before her move to the Education Department. But Mike Petrilli, a former associate deputy secretary under Spellings' predecessor, Rod Paige, says Spellings "micromanaged the implementation of Reading First from her West Wing office." She already has told lawmakers she is beefing up oversight of the program.
But even a few critics cautiously concede that the program has been a boon to schools. The Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank that has criticized Bush's education programs, in September said Reading First is having "a significant impact" in schools.
A five-year, $30.5 million evaluation, begun in 2003, should produce complete results next year.
Cindy Cupp, a Savannah, Ga., educator, was among the first to complain in 2005, after Reading First schools in Georgia passed over her homegrown phonics program. Cupp compiled a huge dossier outlining the links between publishers, federal advisers, universities and the Bush administration. In findings issued last January, Higgins largely upheld her complaint.
She says it's irrelevant whether Reading First works: "To rationalize breaking the law by saying the program has been effective is just that ΓΆ€” a rationalization."
She also notes that part of the evaluation bid went to RMC Research Corp., which Higgins cited for turning a blind eye to conflicts of interest among three top advisers it hired. All three are scheduled to testify Friday.
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