Spellings Faces Tough Questioning on Hill
The congressional inquiry into the federal Reading First program continued here today as U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told the House Education and Labor Committee she is “deeply concerned” about new revelations about the extent of financial ties between federal consultants and commercial publishers and will continue to investigate allegations of mismanagement and bias in the program.
When asked after the hearing if she would ask for the resignation of Edward J. Kame’enui, a high-level official at the Department of Education and one of the former consultants targeted in the ongoing review of the program, she answered, “I don’t know.”
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, said Mr. Kame’enui, who is serving as the commissioner of special education research at the department, should resign.
“His testimony [of April 20] was less than candid … and the conflicts are there,” he told reporters after the hearing. The secretary shouldn’t “keep employing people who have acted on their conflicts contrary to the interests of the department.”
At the hearing, Republicans lauded Ms. Spelling for making administrative changes to the Reading First program that the department’s inspector general recommended in his report last fall.
“We all are in agreement that Reading First is a successful and worthy program,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and the senior GOP member of the panel, said in his opening statement. “Now, we must take the initiative to change the law accordingly to ensure past instances of mismanagement never repeat themselves again.”
During the two-hour hearing, Mr. Miller had harsh words for the Education Department’s management of the reading initiative, as well as the federal student-loan program, which was the main focus of questions addressed to the secretary.
“When I look at the whole body of evidence that has been amassed about both the student-loan and Reading First programs, it is clear that—at a minimum—the Education Department’s oversight failures have been monumental,” Rep. Miller said.
The $1 billion-a-year initiative to improve reading instruction in the nation’s low-performing schools has come under growing scrutiny since the release of a series of federal reports suggesting that federal officials and their consultants appeared to favor some commercial reading programs over others and may have overstepped legal prohibitions against influencing state and local decisionmaking on curriculum issues.
The Senate education committee released the preliminary results of its own investigation yesterday, detailing the financial benefits some Reading First officials and consultants received after their products were adopted by participating schools. The report suggested that while Mr. Kame’enui directed a federal technical-assistance center for Reading First, he actively promoted a textbook he wrote that is now used in many participating schools.
Reading First, authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, began to draw criticism shortly after the 2002 rollout from publishers and state education officials who alleged that the Education Department appeared to be endorsing certain reading products despite legal prohibitions.
Those complaints culminated in broad reviews of the program by the Education Department’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office.
Ms. Spellings said in response to several questions from education committee members that she has adopted the recommendations of the inspector general and is working to strengthen the department’s conflict-of-interest guidelines.
The hearing was the second by the House education panel to focus on Reading First. On April 20, several former and current federal officials and consultants were questioned about their role in the grant approval and implementation process. The Senate education committee is also expected to hold a hearing, but no date has been set.
Loan Monitoring Eyed
Rep. Miller grilled Secretary Spellings on the Education Department’s lack of action against long-standing practices in the student-loan industry that he described as predatory and unethical.
But the secretary deflected much of the blame for the alleged abuse of loan inducements—financial incentives lenders offered to colleges to direct students to private loans—that lenders had with universities, and said she could not act against lenders without stronger oversight laws. She contended that without a strong legal case against lender practices, the department had few options for addressing them. She said Congress needed to act.
“The law has a very high legal hurdle that needs to be cleared” before the department can pursue action against lenders suspected of gaming the system, Ms. Spellings said.
But Rep. Miller countered that the department should have taken action whether a legal case could be made that there was abuse or not.
“It isn’t about a hurdle to be cleared, it’s about whether or not you looked at the situation and made a determination that it was unacceptable and that the practice had to end,” Mr. Miller responded. “Nowhere in five years of monitoring, which was the department’s accepted practice for dealing with the problem, did anyone make an effort to call a halt to this practice.”
Limited Reading Testimony
Meanwhile, limited discussion of Reading First took place during the hearing, disappointing some who have followed the program’s missteps.
Jady Johnson, the executive director of the Reading Recovery Council of North America, said she had hoped there would be more details on how the department would respond to the growing evidence that some contractors personally benefited from the work they did with the program.
Others had hoped the committee would ask about Ms. Spellings’ role. Some former Education Department officials have suggested that she was integrally involved early in the implementation of Reading First while serving as domestic policy adviser at the White House during President Bush’s first term.
In a series of reports, the Education Department’s inspector general found evidence that federal officials and consultants appeared to favor some commercial programs and assessments over others and may have directed states and districts to use specific curricula and professional-development providers, despite legal prohibitions.
The reports, issued last September through February, criticized the oversight of the program, particularly the lack of controls over potential conflicts of interest.