ERIC Award Tainted, Says Group

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WASHINGTON--Charging that Education Department officials may have rigged the bidding process for political reasons, the National Council of Teachers of English has formally protested the department's award of a contract to operate its information clearinghouse on reading.

The N.C.T.E., which had operated the Educational Resources Information Center on reading and communication skills since 1972, early this year lost its bid for a new five-year contract to Indiana University.

'Predisposed' To Deny Bid

In papers filed this month with the General Accounting Office, which has statutory authority to review bid protests, the council accuses the department's office of educational research and improvement of being "predisposed against awarding the contract to the N.C.T.E.''

Department officials, particularly Chester E. Finn Jr., the director of O.E.R.I., have squared off with the council on education issues in the past, and may have sought to deny the N.C.T.E. the contract, according to Charles Suhor, deputy executive director of the council.

Mr. Finn "has made no secret of his view that people thinking along the lines of the N.C.T.E. were philosophical opponents of his,'' said Mr. Suhor, who had served as director of the clearinghouse.

The council charges that the department stacked the panel that reviewed the contract proposals with unqualified reviewers, conducted possibly improper procedures in seating the panel, and posed discriminatory questions to the bidders.

"The process itself might have been manipulated by individuals at O.E.R.I., or at best, handled ineptly,'' said Mr. Suhor. "There were apparently either a series of ineptitudes, or a series of orchestrations plus ineptitudes.''

'Absolutely Kosher Competition'

"If that is the case,'' he added, "that has implications'' for all potential contractors.

Mr. Finn denied that there was any manipulation of the contract process, and said the council's response is typical for unsuccessful bidders.

"Obviously, I think we made the correct decision,'' he said. "We ran what we understood to be an absolutely kosher competition and made the proper judgment, using proper procedures and contracting law.''

"They allege otherwise,'' he added. "Let the judge decide.''

Likewise, Carl B. Smith, the winning contractor from Indiana University, said: "Two proposals were submitted to a review board composed of peers. For whatever reason, they chose us over the N.C.T.E.''

'Heavy Judgment Call'

The council's actions came just days before a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of a similar protest by Ohio State University. The judge in that case held last week that the department had improperly awarded a grant to operate the National Center for Research in Vocational Education to a consortium of institutions led by the University of California at Berkeley. (See story, page 1.)

Officials of the N.C.T.E. said it was unlikely that the åòéã contract was decided on the basis of price, or because the Indiana proposal was superior.

The N.C.T.E.'s bid for the $351,000 contract exceeded Indiana's by only $1,500, Mr. Suhor said.

Furthermore, he said, to consider Indiana's proposal superior would involve a "heavy judgment call.''

"They did have some innovative things there,'' Mr. Suhor said. "I think we had an equal number, or more, innovations.''

Peer-Review Panel

The council charges that the five-person panel that reviewed the bids was unqualified. The panel, which included three N.C.T.E. staff members and two field specialists, included only one member with expertise in English as a precollegiate field of study, according to the council.

"Peer review by well-known specialists from the field is at the core of fair evaluation of contract proposals,'' the protest document states, adding that the panel's review was "not an equitable source of judgment.''

The document notes that the O.E.R.I. staff members reduced the N.C.T.E.'s rating, while the field reviewer raised its score.

The council also challenges the procedures used in seating the review panel. The only public-school English practitioner in the group--Betty Blaisdell, language-arts coordinator for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools--was removed after a short time because she had written a letter in support of the N.C.T.E.'s bid, and department officials suspected a conflict of interest, Mr. Suhor said.

He noted that another panel member, whom he did not name, was formerly employed at Indiana University. That fact did not lead to a challenge, he said. "Was the conflict-of-interest charge applied in a discriminatory manner?'' he asked.

Technical Questions

The council also charges the reviewers with discriminating against it in their technical questions.

"It is immediately evident that the 1987 Indiana University proposal does not in any sense follow the required format of the 1987 request for proposals,'' the protest document states. However, it notes, "the technical questions submitted by O.E.R.I. to Indiana University made no mention whatever of this failure to respond to basic requirements of the R.F.P.''

In addition, according to Mr. Suhor, the reviewers implied in their questions that the professional association would be more likely than the university to influence the products of the clearinghouse. In fact, he said, "institutional philosophies and biases work within universities as well.''

Competition in Contracting

The English council has asked the G.A.O. to require the Education Department to create a new peer-review group of "nationally known, field-based experts'' in reading and communication skills, who would reassess the bids from the two applicants.

Under the Competition in Contracting Act of 1984, the G.A.O. acts as a "quasi-judicial body'' to hear protests from unsuccessful bidders. The law stipulates that the department must respond to the protest within 25 working days, and the protestor has 10 days after that to rebut their response.

The G.A.O. has 90 days to make a determination. The agency's recommendations "are not legally binding, but they are almost always followed,'' said Andrew Pogany, a lawyer for the G.A.O.'s procurement division.

Vol. 07, Issue 26

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