A scorching internal review of the Bush administration’s billion-dollar-a-year reading program says the Education Department (ED) ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted.
The government audit is unsparing in its view that the Reading First program has been beset by conflicts of interest and willful mismanagement. It suggests the department broke the law by trying to dictate which curriculum schools must use.
It also depicts a program in which review panels were stacked with people who shared the director’s views, and in which only favored publishers of reading curricula could get money.
In one eMail message, the director told a staff member to come down hard on a company he didn’t support, according to the report released Sept. 22 by the department’s inspector general.
“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,” the program director wrote, the report says.
That official, Chris Doherty, is resigning in the coming days, department spokeswoman Katherine McLane said Sept. 22. Asked if his quitting was in response to the report, she said only that Doherty is returning to the private sector after five years at the agency. Doherty declined to comment. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pledged to swiftly adopt all the audit’s recommendations. She also pledged a review of every Reading First grant her agency has approved.
“When something undermines the credibility of this department, or the standing of any program, I’m going to spring into action,” Spellings told the Associated Press.
Reading First aims to help young children read through scientifically proven programs, and the department considers it a jewel of No Child Left Behind, Bush’s education law. Just this week, a separate review found the effort is helping schools raise achievement.
But from the start, the program has been dogged by accusations of impropriety, leading to several ongoing audits. The new report from the Office of Inspector General–an independent arm of ED–calls into question the program’s credibility.
The ranking Democrat on the House education committee was furious.
“They should fire everyone who was involved in this,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. “This was not an accident; this was not an oversight. This was an intentional effort to corrupt the process.”
Spellings said the problems happened in the early days of the program, which began in 2002, before she was secretary. She said those responsible have left the agency or been reassigned.
About 1,500 school districts have received $4.8 billion in Reading First grants.
The audit found the department:
•Botched the way it picked a panel to review grant applications, raising questions over whether grants were approved as the law requires.
•Screened grant reviewers for conflicts of interest, but then failed to identify six who had a clear conflict based on their industry connections.
•Did not let states see the comments of experts who reviewed their applications.
•Required states to meet conditions that weren’t part of the law.
•Tried to downplay elements of the law it didn’t like when working with states.
The report does not name Doherty, referring to him as the Reading First director.
It says he repeatedly used his influence to steer money toward states that used a reading approach he favored, called Direct Instruction, or DI, a phonics-centric approach that was developed by a researcher associated with the University of Oregon. DI is a model of teaching that requires the use of Reading Mastery, a program published by SRI/McGraw-Hill, according to the audit. In one case, the report says, Doherty was told a review panel was stacked with people who backed that program.
“That’s the funniest part–yes!” he responded in eMail dating to 2002. “You know the line from Casablanca, ‘I am SHOCKED that there is gambling going on in this establishment!’ Well, ‘I am SHOCKED that there are pro-DI people on this panel!'”
Spellings took issue with the use of such eMail messages in the audit. She said they could be used to draw unfair conclusions about a person’s intentions.
The inspector general rejected that. It said the eMails were written by Doherty in his role as director, and there is no evidence they were inaccurate or pulled out of context.
The audit also faults other officials who had a big hand in Reading First, including Susan Neuman, the former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education.
Spellings, who became secretary in 2005, said she is not aware of any effort to favor certain reading programs. That, however, is just what the audit says has happened.
“I’m doing everything I can at this point,” she said. “I can’t undo what’s been done.”
Inspector General’s report