Corruption in No Child law spurs congressional probe
By William Bainbridge
On last Aug. 3, this column focused on unsavory ties between the administration of President Bush and certain educational publishers profiting from the No Child Left Behind law.
Publishing giant McGraw-Hill produced an extremely high annualized return of 19 percent last year, in part due to No Child, which its chairman championed through his family ties to Bush and his role as education chairman of the Business Roundtable association of CEOs.
No one in the administration appeared to question Harold McGraw III's conflict of interest in using family ties while representing a nonprofit organization to promote business to his conglomerate.
In the ensuing nine months, a scandal has been born.
Congressional hearings began April 20 documenting obvious preferences within the administration for McGraw-Hill's "Direct Instruction/Reading Mastery."
The amounts of money are significant, since the U.S. Government Accounting Office estimates school districts are in the process of spending $5 billion with publishers to develop, score and report the tests required under No Child.
The centerpiece of No Child was a new "research-based approach" including "Reading First," a federally prescribed plan assisting schools to adopt strategies "that have been proved to prevent or remediate reading failure" through rigorous peer-reviewed studies.
Four audits by the office of the U.S. inspector general of the Education Department and recent ongoing hearings in Congress documented that federal officials, along with a small group of publishers, have intimidated state education agencies and local school systems into adopting a proprietary list of unproven textbooks and programs without the customary support of peer-reviewed research.
Publishers paid royalties and consulting fees to Reading First contractors, who demonstrated arrogance and conflicts of interest by serving as consultants for states seeking grants and chairing panels approving the grants.
Highlights of the inspector general's report included internal e-mails from Chris Doherty, Bush appointed Reading First program director.
Doherty vowed to deny funding to publishers that were not part of the favored few:
"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 dirt bags," he said.
Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. stated review panels were stacked with people who shared Doherty's views. Doherty has resigned.
Meanwhile Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, a longtime political ally of Bush, continues to defend the program.
During contentious hearings before the House Education and Labor Committee, Higgins referred the information gathered in the audits of the Reading First program to law enforcement for further investigation.
Higgins told the committee he had referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice: "We found that the department obscured the requirements of the statute by inappropriately including or excluding standards in the application criteria."
With the current creditability problems between the attorney general and Democrats in Congress, one can only imagine how long this investigation of the administration might take.
U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-CA., said in response, "I think we're very close to a criminal enterprise here, I think when we put the evidence together we may join you in those criminal referrals. "
The strong-arm tactics used to enforce the use of preferred materials was exposed in congressional hearings. The Web site of the International Reading Association provides a summary of the findings by noting that the federal administration:
Developed an application package that obscured the requirements of the statute;
Intervened to release an assessment review document without the permission of the entity that contracted for its development;
Intervened to influence a state's selection of reading programs; and
Intervened to influence reading programs being used by local education agencies after the application process was complete.
It is ironic that on so many fronts an administration of self-branded conservatives demonstrates little conservatism.
There is good evidence to conclude this is the most liberal administration since Franklin D. Roosevelt, in terms of federal control of state and local rights.
The alleged corruption appears to rival the administration of President Harding.
William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D., of St. Augustine, is Distinguished Research Professor - SchoolMatch Institute.
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