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Conflict of interest alleged

Companies paid people who selected programs. And it was big money.

By Greg Gelpi

While contractors for the federal government were paid to select the reading programs school systems could use, they also were being paid by the companies that developed the programs, according to a report released this month by a U.S. Senate committee.

Among the companies named in the report is Voyager Expanded Learning, a program used in Richmond County that has come under scrutiny by the school board.

These "ties, in many instances, may have improperly influenced their actions," the report said of the four Reading First regional directors investigated by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Reading First is a significant component of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. As part of the K-3 reading program, RMC Research Corp. was given a contract to administer it. Through the contract, three regional technical assistance directors were selected to choose which reading programs were to be funded by Reading First, and to assist school systems with the Reading First program.

The report shows that hundreds of thousands of dollars were given to the four people who served as the three regional directors for various reasons, some for royalties and consulting services.

Voyager officials maintain that the company did nothing wrong. Its policies prohibit consultants from being paid royalties based on sales, unlike other companies, to specifically avoid conflicts of interest, spokeswoman Shannan Overbeck wrote in an e-mail.

"In Voyager's case, we typically contract industry experts on a project-by-project basis to form advisory teams that assist internal teams in the design and development of Voyager products," she wrote.

And the consultants in question were hired before No Child Left Behind, she said.

Voyager paid three of the four people who served as directors, according to the report.

Voyager has paid Dr. Sharon Vaughn, one of the directors, nearly $700,000 since 2001, the report said. In 2006 alone, she was paid $250,000.

The Senate committee investigation found "substantial financial ties to publishing companies while simultaneously being responsible for providing technical assistance to states and school districts." Edward Kame'enui, one of the regional directors, resigned earlier this month.

— Greg Gelpi
Augusta Chronicle


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