September 23, 2006
Report Says Education Officials Violated Rules
By SAM DILLON
The New York Times
Department of Education officials violated conflict of interest rules when awarding grants to states under President Bushs billion-dollar reading initiative, and steered contracts to favored textbook publishers, the departments inspector general said yesterday.
In a searing report that concludes the first in a series of investigations into complaints of political favoritism in the reading initiative, known as Reading First, the report said officials improperly selected the members of review panels that awarded large grants to states, often failing to detect conflicts of interest. The money was used to buy reading textbooks and curriculum for public schools nationwide.
States have received more than $4.8 billion in Reading First grants during the Bush administration, and a recent survey by an independent group, the Center on Education Policy, reported that many state officials consider the initiative to be highly effective in raising reading achievement. But the report describes a tangled process in which some states had to apply for grants as many as six times before receiving approval, with department officials scheming to stack panels with experts tied to favored publishers.
In one e-mail message cited in the report, from which the inspector general deleted some vulgarities, the director of Reading First, Chris Doherty, urged staff members to make clear to one company that it was not favored at the department.
They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] 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 dirtbags, Mr. Doherty wrote.
Here’s a peek into the Massachusetts connection, dating back to a story in the Lynn Daily Item, April 7, 2003.
Lynn schools superintendent ‘shocked’ over denied literacy grant
By Jill Ricker
Monday, April 7, 2003
Superintendents from Lynn and a number of other needy urban communities are claiming they were treated unfairly when the state Department of Education denied them millions of dollars in grant money for reading programs.
Lynn, along with Brockton, Boston, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lowell, New Bedford and Cambridge, was rejected for the Reading First grant, which brings science-based reading programs to K-3 classrooms so that all students are proficient readers by the end of third-grade.
Meanwhile, several smaller, wealthier towns, including Brewster, Chatham, Shutesbury and Tisbury, along with five charter schools, were successful in securing the grant.
Lynn Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Kostan said he was shocked that Lynn’s grant application was not approved.
“It’s unbelievable that a city like Lynn didn’t qualify and the others did,” he said. “To be honest with you, we were very hopeful and confident that we would get that grant. A city like Lynn, especially with the budget projections we have coming up, certainly is in need of a grant like that.”
Kostan estimated that the loss of the grant translates into a loss of several hundred thousand dollars.
“Lawrence received $640,000,” he said. “A system this size, I’d say it would be in the several hundreds of thousands.”
When he received notification last week that Lynn was denied the grant, Kostan said he was in stunned.
“We thought our people did an excellent job writing the grant and they followed all the recommended guidelines,” he said. “We were certain we had made it. It was a major disappointment that we did not qualify for that grant. It’s, to me, almost beyond belief. It was very surprising to me. I’d be interested in the criteria used in the selection process. I’m going to research it a little bit further.”
In conversations with Brockton Superintendent Joe Bage, Kostan gathered that Bage was equally as irritated.
“He was extremely upset,” he said.
Bage said the grant denial was such a shock that his grant-writing team broke down in tears upon receiving the news.
“I had to sit in on people crying – four adult professionals – on why we didn’t get the grant,” Bage said. “We need every penny we can get, from anyplace and everywhere. At this point, I am very unhappy.”
“That pretty much mirrors what happened here,” Kostan said of Lynn’s grant-writing team. “We had put our best people together in writing that grant. They were just distraught over it.”
This year, Massachusetts has received $15 million for Reading First, and is in line for $100 million during the next six years. The state Department of Education awarded 38 grants after examining 64 proposals. Districts were evaluated on their poverty rates, MCAS performance and the number of under-performing schools. The state Board of Education gave final approval of recipients.
Critics of the program say the federal guidelines are too strict.
Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant told his school board that if he pledged to abandon his literacy programs in favor of phonics, Boston likely would have received a grant.
“It didn’t get distributed on the basis of need,” said Paul Schlichtman, president-elect of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “It got distributed on the basis of who was going to do exactly what the feds and state wanted them to do. It’s a further erosion of local control.”
The state program director, Barbara Gardner, said Washington “does have a clear direction they want to take reading down.” But what it comes down to is that the best proposals get the money, she said.
“We did it thoughtfully and carefully. It’s a competitive grant. You’ve got to write a good grant (proposal),” Gardner said. “I think we got a good mix of school systems throughout the commonwealth.”
U.S. Education Undersecretary Eugene Hickok said in the past, “whatever you wanted to do, you did” with federal grants. Reading First, he said, stresses a proven program and accountability.
“A lot of money was spent on reading, without a lot of results,” Hickok said of past programs. “Congress and the president, all of us, want to make sure federal tax dollars yield results. The goal here is to do what works.”