Reading First Financial Corruption
The Department stacked panels with people who had financial ties to the programs they were evaluating: "The selection of the expert review panel was not in compliance with the law..." And the Department, said the report:
o Developed an application package that obscured the requirements of the statute;
o Took action with respect to the expert review panel process that was contrary to the balanced panel composition envisioned by Congress.
For example, Department officials planned to include language that was not in the statute and exclude language that was in the statute, apparently to create advantages for favored programs and disadvantages for others. According to the Inspector General's report, "After reviewing a revision to the Department's draft of the Reading First Guidance, the Assistant Secretary for OESE wrote to the Reading First Director, 'under reading first plan. I'd like not to say "this must include early intervention and reading remediation materials" which I think could be read as "reading recovery" [a reading program]. Even if it says this in the law, I'd like it taken out.' The subject phrase appears in the law twice."
Department personnel then browbeat and threatened state officials into accepting the unproven, favored programs. "[F]ive of the State applications we reviewed were funded without documentation that they met all of the criteria for approval… State applications were forced to meet standards that were not required by the statute." The Department, reads the report:
o Intervened to influence a State's selection of reading programs; and
o Intervened to influence reading programs being used by local educational agencies (LEAs) after the application process was completed.
The violations were clearly unethical and possible illegal: "These actions demonstrate that the program officials failed to maintain a control environment that exemplifies management integrity and accountability."
The report explained that the Department may have violated federal law that "prohibits Department officials from exercising any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum or program of instruction of any educational institution, school, or school system."
Reading First director Chris Doherty has resigned and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said she will implement changes recommended by the Inspector General. Other people complicit in the unethical efforts, including former reading "Czar" Reid Lyon, appear to have emerged unscathed. According to Michael Grunwald, writing in the Washington Post, "Reid Lyon, who designed Reading First, complained that a whole-language proponent had received an invitation to participate on an evaluation panel, a top department official replied: 'We can't un-invite her. Just make sure she is on a panel with one of our barracuda types.'"
Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller have called for more investigations. Harkin wants to know what Spellings knew about the actions when she worked in the White House on education policy for President George W. Bush. Miller asked the Justice Department to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing.
While political and legal events unfold, it is unclear whether the real damage can be readily repaired. Will states that accepted the preferred programs under duress be able to revisit their programs? What impact would starting over with new programs have on schools? And if unsound programs are being used, will that undermine reading instruction and student learning?
o The inspector general's report is at www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/i13f0017.pdf
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