In the latest twist to a storyline that has surfaced previously during the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) inspector general says he will review whether federal money is being spent inappropriately on educational technology sold to schools by a company founded by Neil Bush, the president’s brother.

Based on reporting by eSchool News, there appears to be no evidence that administration officials have had any influence over school districts’ decisions to buy products from the company, Ignite! Learning.

In an interview with eSchool News, the Ignite! founder suggested the extra scrutiny given to his company is largely politically motivated.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, called for the inquiry and released a letter this week from ED’s inspector general, John Higgins Jr.

In the letter, Higgins said he would ask an assistant to examine the group’s complaint. That statement provided the impetus for articles in the New York Times and by wire services.

CREW contends school districts are using federal dollars inappropriately to purchase technology from Austin, Texas-based Ignite! Learning, which Neil Bush founded and chairs. The group asserts there is no proof the company’s products are effective and claims that schools in at least three states are using the products mainly as a result of political considerations.

Ignite! Learning’s president, Ken Leonard, issued a statement denying the group’s allegations.

“While Ignite! Learning welcomes accountability for ensuring that public school expenditures are in compliance with appropriation guidelines, Ignite! Learning has no knowledge of any customer that has procured our curriculum solutions through means which are other than completely ethical,” Leonard said.

He added that Ignite has not received any correspondence from the inspector general’s office.

Ignite sells a product it refers to as a Curriculum on Wheels (COW), a cart-mounted video projector and hard drive loaded with video content to help teach math, social studies, and science. The solution costs about $3,800, not including yearly costs for licensing the content.

CREW’s claims are based on a key principle of the No Child Left Behind Act that says federal Title I monies for disadvantaged students should be spent on scientifically proven solutions.

In a 16-page letter to the inspector general, CREW argues there have been few studies done to assess the effectiveness of Ignite’s products–and the research that does exist fails to meet the federal education law’s standards for scientific rigor.

“It is astonishing that taxpayer dollars are being spent on unproven educational products to the financial benefit of the president’s brother,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director. “The [inspector general] should investigate whether children’s educations are being sacrificed so that Neil Bush can rake in federal funds.”

In his interview with eSchool News, Bush said the watchdog group has misinterpreted the federal statute.

“We’re proud we have a product that has the science of learning built into its design, with tons of anecdotal evidence,” the Ignite founder said. “But we don’t yet have efficacy studies that meet the What Works Clearinghouse standards–in fact, I challenge you to find any educational curriculum that has met that standard.”

Bush was referring to a clearinghouse established by the Education Department in 2002 to review studies of educational solutions and rate their degree of scientific rigor. Currently, only seven categories of products exist in the clearinghouse database: beginning reading, character education, dropout prevention, early childhood education, elementary school math, English language learners, and middle school math.

Under middle school math, the clearinghouse has evaluated the research behind just seven products, and only two of these products have been found to contain “strong evidence” of success. Ignite’s COW is not among the products whose research has been evaluated, but the company only started selling its math solution earlier this year.

Ignite says it is working to produce more scientifically rigorous studies of the effectiveness of its curriculum. But the company says it already has anecdotal evidence of success in some Texas school systems.

This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about Ignite and its product. An October 2006 story in the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Bush’s Family Profits from ‘No Child’ Act,” raised similar concerns.

The current controversy over Ignite seems to be quite different from the one involving the federal Reading First program, in which the inspector general determined that Education Department officials steered funding toward certain favored solutions.

CREW says its mission is to “promote ethics and accountability in government and public life by targeting government officials–regardless of party affiliation–who sacrifice the common good to special interests.”

CREW chief Sloan, who founded the watchdog organization in 2003, is a former U.S. attorney who has served as an aide to Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, both Democrats. Last year, the group released a list of the “22 Most Corrupt Members of Congress,” which featured 18 Republicans and four Democrats.

Links:

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government

Ignite! Learning

Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Education