Senate Report Cites ‘Reading First’ Conflicts
Spellings unsure whether she’ll ask for resignation of official reported to have benefited financially from his position.
A federal official gained significant financial benefit from a commercial reading program he wrote, which he actively promoted while serving as a high-level adviser to states during the implementation of the Reading First program, a Senate report said last week.
The official, Edward J. Kame’enui, may have misrepresented those details when he testified under oath before a congressional committee last month, according to the preliminary results of a Senate education committee investigation.
Mr. Kame’enui, who is now serving as the commissioner for special education research at the U.S. Department of Education, had close ties to publishing companies that were competing for business among schools and districts participating in the $1 billion-a-year reading initiative, concludes the report. It was released May 9 by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
At a House hearing on Reading First and student loans last week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said she was “deeply concerned” by the Senate report and was “vigorously” investigating the allegations.
When asked after the May 10 hearing if she would ask for Mr. Kame’enui’s resignation, she answered, “I don’t know.”
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Mr. Kame’enui should resign.
“His testimony [of April 20] was less than candid … and the conflicts are there,” Mr. Miller told reporters after last week’s hearing by his committee. The secretary shouldn’t “keep employing people who have acted on their conflicts contrary to the interests of the department,” he said.
The Senate report describes the financial gains and contracts of Mr. Kame’enui and three other researchers who served as directors of the regional technical-assistance centers for Reading First during the rollout of the 5-year-old program.
“The committee’s investigation revealed that four [technical-assistance-center directors] had substantial financial ties with various education publishers during the time they were under contract or subcontract with the department for the Reading First program,” the report says.
Last month, Sen. Kennedy issued formal requests for documents from a number of Reading First contractors, including Douglas Carnine and Mr. Kame’enui from the University of Oregon, Joseph Torgesen of Florida State University, and Sharon Vaughn of the University of Texas at Austin. They served as directors of three regional technical-assistance centers that provided advice to states on meeting the grant program’s strict guidelines.
Outside income from publishing agreements “soared” for the researchers between 2001 and 2006 when they were serving as consultants to Reading First, the report says, based on documents gathered by the Senate committee.
Income for Mr. Kame’enui and Ms. Vaughn, in particular, jumped significantly during implementation of Reading First at a time when they provided advice to states on the kinds of texts and assessments that would meet the program’s requirements.
Between 2003 and 2006, for example, the Senate report says, Mr. Kame’enui earned some $150,000 a year or more in royalties and compensation from Pearson Scott Foresman, which publishes Early Reading Intervention, a textbook he wrote with former University of Oregon professor Deborah C. Simmons. He also received consulting fees in excess of $100,000 total from his work designing Voyager Expanded Learning, a reading program that experienced rapid success over the past several years. He helped Ms. Vaughn secure contracts with Scott Foresman and Best Associates, which published the Voyager program, that have earned her some $500,000 in royalties since 2001, according to the report.
Those agreements had nothing to do with her work on Reading First, Ms. Vaughn said in an interview, and had been vetted for possible conflicts of interest by University of Texas officials.
Mr. Carnine has also drawn considerable profits from the sale of textbooks he has written, about $750,000. But the textbooks are primarily for the college market and in other subject areas.
Mr. Torgesen was also on contract as a member of the Voyager design team, but he wrote in a 2003 e-mail to his colleagues that he was resigning because of his concerns that the arrangement posed a conflict of interest with his other work. At the time, he was the director of the Eastern regional-assistance center at Florida State. In a statement, Mr. Torgesen said that he received relatively small amounts of royalty income—stipends of $1,000 to $3,000 and then $20,000 from Voyager, coming to about $50,000 over five years—from his publishing contracts.
Mr. Kame’enui is on leave from the University of Oregon while he serves as the commissioner of the National Center for Special Education Research, an arm of the Department of Education. He testified at a contentious hearing before the House education committee April 20 that there were no “real conflicts of interest” among him and his colleagues who served as advisers on Reading First. ("House Panel Grills Witnesses on Reading First," April 25, 2007.)
He told the House panel that he had never promoted his reading text, but the Senate report documents numerous occasions on which he spoke at conferences and training events at the request of the publisher.
He also said in his testimony that he had not known that his textbook was being packaged with a reading assessment that is widely used in Reading First schools. The Senate report, however, includes excerpts from e-mails in which he discusses the possibility of marketing the two products together.
The Education Department would not make Mr. Kame’enui available for response last week.
“The Department is deeply concerned about conflicts of interest and takes the allegations contained in Senator Kennedy’s report very seriously,” Education Department spokeswoman Katherine McKlane said in a statement. “We are studying this report to determine if further actions are necessary and will act aggressively if any wrongdoing is found.”
At last week’s hearing, House Republicans lauded Secretary Spelling for making administrative changes to the Reading First program that the Education Department’s inspector general recommended in a report last fall.
“We all are in agreement that Reading First is a successful and worthy program,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the senior Republican 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.”
But Chairman Miller had harsh words for the 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 during the House hearing.
“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 initiative to improve reading instruction in the nation’s low-performing schools—adopted as part of the No Child Left Behind Act—has come under growing scrutiny since the release of a series of reports suggesting that federal officials and their consultants appeared to favor some commercial reading programs over others and may have overstepped legal prohibitions against federal influence on state and local decisionmaking on curriculum issues.
Vol. 26, Issue 37, Pages 1,24