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U.S. Reading Program Benefits Bush Friend

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Joseph Rhee and Dana Hughes

A Texas businessman listed as a major fundraiser for President George Bush has made millions of dollars in profits from a federal reading program that critics say favored administration cronies at the expense of schoolchildren.

A company founded and owned by Randy Best, who is listed by the nonprofit group Public Citizen as a Bush "Pioneer" during the 2000 presidential campaign, received the lucrative contracts under a Bush administration initiative called Reading First.

Only those who pledged to raise $100,000 or more are considered "Pioneers" by the Bush campaign. Best told the Blotter on ABCNews.com that he did not raise $100,000 and personally gave only the legal limit of $4,000.

After receiving the Reading First contracts, Best was able to sell his company, Voyager Expanded Learning, for $360 million. According to his critics, the company was valued at only $5 million a few years earlier, a figure Best disputes.

"At the time of the sale, the company that bought the program justified this to their stockholders on the basis that this program had done extremely well under Reading First and was very politically connected," said Robert Slavin, a leading educator at Johns Hopkins University and critic of the Reading First program.

Slavin, the brother of an ABC News executive, says a program he developed was rejected by the Department of Education despite its record of success.

Best, of Dallas, denied his connections to President Bush helped him win any of the federal reading program contracts.

"I have gotten no help from anyone in the administration, and I've given more money to Democrats than Republicans," Best told ABCNews.com.

But congressional investigators say Reading First contracts were awarded by the administration based on politics and financial ties, not merit.

"They designed it for their friends and cronies, and they ended up not designing the best program for America's schoolchildren," said Congressman George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

In a report earlier this year, the inspector general for the Department of Education found repeated instances of conflict of interest in the Reading First program.

For example, one of the educators who advised states on reading programs, Edward Kame'enui, was receiving consultant fees from Best's company and also received $400,000 in royalties from publisher Scott Foresman, which produced reading programs.

Appearing before Miller's congressional committee, Kame'enui said there were no conflict of interest rules for subcontractors like him.

"Had we been informed of conflict of interest criteria, we would have certainly implemented those," Kame'enui told Congress.

"Since the first inspector general report was issued in September 2006, Secretary Spellings has moved swiftly and aggressively to implement every one of the IG's recommendations," an Education Department spokesperson told ABCNews.com. "Reading First is a program that has achieved remarkable results for children learning to read, and the secretary is committed to its results."

— Joseph Rhee and Dana Hughes
ABC News: The Blotter


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