By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
The U.S. Department of Education's internal watchdog has opened a preliminary investigation into possible mismanagement of President Bush's $1 billion reading program amid complaints of conflict of interest.
Education Department officials would not confirm that the department's inspector general is investigating Reading First, but a spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., confirmed that an audit was taking place.
Lugar, a Reading First supporter, wrote to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in June with "considerable concern" about the program, which a few opponents say pressures schools to adopt unproven, textbook-based reading programs.
One of Bush's signature education initiatives, Reading First provides more than $1 billion annually to public schools to help teach reading to disadvantaged children through third grade. Unprecedented in size, it is one of the few federal programs that isn't shrinking in this time of budget cuts. Congress is expected to distribute about $6 billion to schools by 2007.
Advocates say Reading First has helped students in thousands of schools by training teachers and paying for new materials. But opponents say it has all but forced schools to buy textbooks and related materials from a handful of large publishers, several of which have retained top federal advisers as authors, editors or consultants.
Robert Slavin of the Success for All Foundation, a non-profit research group that has developed its own reading materials, requested the investigation in May, saying Reading First officials have discouraged schools from using his materials despite evidence they are effective. He says Reading First relies on the work of "consultants with major conflicts of interest."
Since Reading First's inception in 2002, several well-known reading experts have both advised states on federal grant applications and worked for major publishers. Publisher Scott Foresman touts two former Reading First officials on its Web site.
"We think that it is far outside of the ordinary bounds of what is considered ethical in government to have people playing such a central role in handing out a billion dollars to schools, districts and states, and then profiting personally from a particular set of choices that they're in a position to advocate," Slavin says.
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey says the allegations "have absolutely no merit."
Slavin's is one of several complaints. On June 10, Lugar wrote to Spellings that "at best, it seems that there has been a lack of clarity" about what programs qualify for funding. "At worst, one or more officials contracted to work for the Department of Education may be working to further their own interests."
Longtime University of Oregon researcher Edward Kame'enui, who has advised states on their Reading First proposals and authored an upcoming Scott Foresman reading textbook, says he disclosed his authorship "when it was appropriate" but noted that the textbook won't be released for months. He says most educators know that many researchers are also authors or advisers to publishers, and that promoting his own materials would be "a shameful representation of your product, of you and ... of Reading First."
Reading First Director Chris Doherty says, "We take that stuff as seriously as it can possibly be taken, because we feel that would be like a death blow to the program." He says schools in 28 states receive federal funding for Success for All.
But Slavin says many schools have been forced to drop it.
Bush has demanded that reading — indeed, all instruction — be "scientifically based."
Slavin says more than 50 studies, including one released in May, show that his reading program produces results. Indeed, it stands nearly alone, with dozens of experimental studies. Yet he says he has had to lay off about a third of his workforce and close regional offices since 2002.
Owen Engelmann of the National Institute for Direct Instruction, which advocates for another top-rated program, also says Reading First "hasn't helped us out much at all." Both he and Slavin say implementation problems threaten to turn a worthy program into ineffective instruction for poor kids at taxpayer expense.
Susan Neuman, who until 2003 oversaw Reading First as Bush's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, says she has seen no mismanagement but noted a "preponderance" of the same textbooks in many states.
Though a few experts say reading textbooks have improved over time, Engelmann says, money would be better spent on programs targeted to individual needs.
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