Project Draws Federal Money, Despite Doubts
'Following the Leaders' Funding Tops $30 Million
Congress recently earmarked another $9.7 million for a school improvement program run by the Education Leaders Council, despite serious questions raised about the project.
The latest earmark, contained in the omnibus fiscal 2005 spending bill adopted in November, brings total federal funding for the project, called Following the Leaders, to about $32.7 million since 2001.
Critics of the program, including several nationally known education leaders, claim that the ELC has not been able to account for all of the federal money spent on the program. They’re also concerned that Following the Leaders primarily consists of technology-based products and services operated by private companies that have provided financial support for the council.
To date, the program has not produced any evaluations to show whether it’s effective in the 600 schools in 11 states that have signed up to use it.
Former U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who served on the ELC’S governing board and spent 26 years in the House of Representatives and six years as chairman of the education committee, called federal lawmakers’ decision to support the new round of funding “a terrible mistake.”
“What does Congress know about how effective their initial investment was?” he said.
Stanford University researcher Margaret E. Raymond said she found numerous problems in 2003 as she began trying to conduct a scientific review of Following the Leaders’ impact on student achievement in schools. That evaluation effort was halted in December of that year.
“We weren’t convinced the program was actually being implemented” that year, said Ms. Raymond, the director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. “We had repeated problems with the FTL program staff not being able to identify for us which schools were FTL schools.”
Following the Leaders’ supporters counter that the program provides a valuable set of tools designed to improve student achievement. Many educators who use the program view it favorably, but use it to varying degrees.
Theodor Rebarber, who became the chief executive officer of the ELC in September, said most of the criticism stems from a feud between current and former ELC board members about the direction of the Washington-based nonprofit organization.
“We have, at this point, found no illegal or unethical practices” related to the complaints, Mr. Rebarber said in a December interview.
The ELC attracted attention over the past year for financial and administrative problems. Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state schools chief, resigned as the ELC’s chief executive officer in September, but remains on its board. ("Education Leaders Council Undergoing Major Changes," Sept. 23, 2004.)
Founded as a conservative-leaning alternative to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the ELC strongly backed the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, favors school choice, and supports alternative forms of teacher certification.
Federal support for Following the Leaders, the major work of the ELC, began three years ago, when Secretary of Education Rod Paige awarded discretionary funds to the project. The program was designed to devise ways of helping schools meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.
After its first year, Following the Leaders turned to Congress for support. Earmarks, which typically are allotments for pet projects pushed through the appropriations process by members of the House and the Senate with little or no scrutiny, have provided most of the money for Following the Leaders.
Sponsored by the Washington-based Education Leaders Council, the Following the Leaders project has received more than $30 million in federal money over the past three years. The companies that have contracts to run parts of the program are:
The Princeton Review
The New York City test-preparation company provides homeroom.com, an Internet software package that allows schools access to tests based on individual states' academic standards.
Achievement Technologies Inc.
Located in Newton, Mass., the company employs regional coaches who work with the schools and districts enrolled in Following the Leaders. The company is the developer of SkillsTutor software. Following the Leaders schools have access to a customized version of that program, blending with homeroom.com to create tests and exercises that align with state academic standards.
While the project includes some less expensive components—including conferences on testing-related issues for state leaders—Following the Leaders mainly contracts with private companies to provide software programs to help schools monitor students’ achievement.
Officials with the Education Leaders Council confirm that the two main private companies involved in Following the Leaders have contributed money directly to the ELC. While ELC officials defend the practice, others question whether a nonprofit organization should receive contributions from companies to which it awards contracts on a multimillion-dollar federal project.
Critics of the setup say they have no evidence of illegal activity. But four former ELC board members, who resigned from the organization last year, say they quit in part because they could not get answers about the ELC’s use of federal funds, its links to private companies, and the implementation of Following the Leaders.
“I didn’t want to get caught in some dealing where there was misuse of federal funds,” said Mr. Goodling, the former congressman, who is now a senior consultant with the Washington lobbying firm B&D Sagamore.
Two companies have contracts to provide services to schools enrolled in Following the Leaders: Achievement Technologies Inc., based in Newton, Mass., and The Princeton Review, based in New York City.
ELC officials said the organization has received about $147,000 in the past three years from Achievement Technologies and about $50,000 from The Princeton Review.
Mr. Rebarber said the contributions represented only about 11 percent of the ELC’s total private contributions and dues during that period. While he maintains that some financial controls have needed tightening at the ELC, an internal audit has accounted for all federal money and other contributions the group has received, he said.
The ELC currently has a budget of about $1.5 million, officials have said. Its staff has been reduced in recent months to seven employees, after a merger last fall with AccountabilityWorks, a Washington-based nonprofit group headed by Mr. Rebarber.
Michael J. Perik, a prominent Democratic Party donor and the chairman and chief executive officer of Achievement Technologies, said that his company has given money to the ELC. But the donations were not simply to keep the financially troubled organization afloat, as some of the former board members feared, he said.
“We are happy to support them, as we are a lot of organizations in the country,” said Mr. Perik, who would not disclose how much of his company’s work involves Following the Leaders.
Ms. Keegan, the ELC’s former top executive, said she had sought financial support from the companies at times. But she denied that any ethical standards had been breached. “Nobody has any reason to believe that,” she said, “and it has never been true.”
But critics have asked whether Following the Leaders exists largely to allow federal money to flow easily into private companies—especially without any evidence that the program has helped raise student achievement.
Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former ELC board member and Minnesota education commissioner, said she was troubled by the close ties to the businesses. “There was this continual communication with vendors which I thought was more than should be appropriate,” she said.
Both the SkillsTutor software provided by Achievement Technologies and The Princeton Review’s homeroom.com, which provides online tests aligned with state academic standards, are available commercially. Schools enrolled in Following the Leaders get a customized package of tools that links the products.
Mr. Perik said that Following the Leaders receives about a 50 percent discount for tools and services provided by his company.
Claire Murphy, a senior account manager for The Princeton Review who works primarily with Following the Leaders, said the program was paying at or near full price for the company’s products. But she said the company’s costs have increased as more schools have joined.
Achievement Technologies has registered a lobbyist on Capitol Hill specifically for Following the Leaders, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based group that monitors federal spending. The Princeton Review also has lobbyists in Washington, although not specifically registered for that project.
Mr. Rebarber of the ELC confirmed that his group and Mr. Perik have pushed for Following the Leaders’ federal earmarks. The newest earmarks allot $3 million to expand Following the Leaders in Iowa, $1 million in Alaska, $500,000 in Tennessee, $100,000 in Rhode Island, and $72,000 in West Virginia. The project itself also received a $5 million earmark last fall.
Mr. Perik is the founder of Massachusetts-based The Learning Company, which developed the popular geography game “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” He denied that his company has lobbied Congress solely for Following the Leaders.
Between Mr. Perik’s history of donations to the Democratic Party and the Republican leanings of the ELC leadership, Following the Leaders has a powerful one-two punch when it seeks federal dollars, observers said. But because the earmark process is typically a secretive one, determining which lawmakers backed the funding for Following the Leaders is difficult. Several members of Congress contacted for this story, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, could not be reached for comment.
Elliot Mincberg, a vice president and general counsel of the liberal People for the American Way Foundation, based in Washington, questioned the program’s close ties to businesses and relative lack of scrutiny on Capitol Hill.
The support for Following the Leaders is “one of perhaps the leading examples of this [Bush] administration funding political or ideological allies, rather than funding proven or reputable education programs,” Mr. Mincberg said.
The U.S. Department of Education should be blamed for any problems with the program, Mr. Mincberg added. “These earmarks wouldn’t be happening if the Department of Education wasn’t pushing for it,” he said.
Mr. Perik, for his part, said he thought Washington politics were driving the criticisms of the former ELC board members.
“For all the people who criticize the program, … how many of them have ever gone and visited a Following the Leaders school?” he said. “The answer is zero.”
Steven Hodas, an executive vice president of The Princeton Review, said in an e-mail that the company joined the ELC as a corporate partner before Following the Leaders was conceived.
“We’re aware that some people have made allegations, but not of any that have been substantiated,” he wrote. “Princeton Review believes that FTL is a well-conceived and well-executed program, one that delivers substantial benefits to the hundreds of schools it serves. We’re proud of our part in it, and hope that the smoke from ELC’s family feud won’t obscure the good work that FTL has done.”
The ELC contracted in December 2002 with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation to conduct a review of Following the Leaders’ impact on student achievement in participating schools. The foundation, which is headed by Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant education secretary under President Reagan, subcontracted with researchers at Stanford University to conduct a study that would meet the standards for scientific research—a rallying cry for the Bush administration.
The Stanford team was startled by what it found.
“There seemed to be a lot of dollars for staffing at the program-leadership level that didn’t seem to go with the amount of effort we were seeing,” said Ms. Raymond, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
The ELC spent nearly $1.5 million in 2003 on project management, coordination, and outreach for Following the Leaders, records show. Private contractors, which include Mr. Perik’s company, received nearly $7.5 million that year.
Ms. Raymond said she became more alarmed when researchers began contacting schools that the ELC had said were enrolled in Following the Leaders, only to find many weren’t actually participating or were just getting started.
Ms. Raymond also maintains that Faye Taylor—a former ELC board member and Tennessee state schools chief who directs Following the Leaders—told researchers in late 2003 that she opposed the use of student test scores in the study, fearing the results could threaten federal funding for the program.
“That was our first signal that there was a much bigger strategy that didn’t involve the quest for truth” in an evaluation of the program, Ms. Raymond said.
Ms. Taylor adamantly denied Ms. Raymond’s charge and said the researcher’s comments “had no basis in fact.”
In fact, Ms. Taylor said, she and other ELC officials have specifically requested a focus on student test scores in a new research study to be completed this year.
“It was not that we were opposed to a rigorous research project,” she said.
Many schools were just beginning to use Following the Leaders’ tools and services when Ms. Raymond’s research team was hired, Ms. Taylor said. And officials with the school improvement program expressed reasonable concerns about Ms. Raymond’s demands on schools and employees of the private contractors, Ms. Taylor added.
The researchers demanded a tremendous amount of paperwork from schools and regional representatives in Following the Leaders, Ms. Taylor said. In some cases, the researchers easily could have found school data on the Web, she said.
Ms. Raymond accused Following the Leaders and its vendors of trying to influence independent research on the program by insisting that mainly smaller districts be included in any studies—even if the districts weren’t large enough to allow for comparisons among schools in the same areas.
Ms. Taylor said she approached large urban systems, but couldn’t wait for them to decide to join.
“This is a massive project. We went from 80 schools to 400 schools in a very short period of time,” Ms. Taylor said. “We didn’t have time to wait for them to go through the process.”
Mr. Perik of Achievement Technologies said his only concern with the Stanford study was that many successful schools would have been eliminated from the research because Ms. Raymond was unable to find enough schools for comparison in the smaller districts.
Federal education officials most familiar with Following the Leaders were not available for comment, but Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey told Education Week that they did not know about many of the critics’ allegations.
Even if the agency did learn of potential problems, according to Ms. Aspey, it has limited power to take action. She said, via e-mail, that the agency reviews audits of programs funded by earmarks, and reviews final reports about such projects when the work ends.
“The project was been widely praised by those who have benefited from the program’s state-of-the-art educational software,” Ms. Aspey wrote.
To make sure federal dollars are being used well, said Mr. Rebarber, the ELC’s chief executive, Following the Leaders likely will replace some inactive schools this year. That’s “something we’ll probably do more of than in the past,” he said.
Vol. 24, Issue 18, Pages 1,14-15