Law & Courts

‘Reading First’ FOIA Requests Hampered by Delays, Costs

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — August 29, 2006 4 min read
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With the first findings from a federal review of the Reading First program due out soon, complainants continue to battle state and federal officials for the release of more documents related to the implementation of the $1 billion-a-year program.

At the same time, Georgia education officials appear to have launched their own battle against charges of mismanagement, with a complaint alleging that the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general’s office has exhibited bias in its review of that state’s $200 million Reading First grant.

Officials for the Success for All Foundation, which filed a lawsuit in federal court in January to compel the Education Department to fulfill the group’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act, are seeking documents they say could show a pattern of preferential treatment, as well as a failure to adhere to the requirements for research-based reading materials and services.

The Baltimore-based foundation, however, was considering dropping part of its request after being told this month that it would take more than a year and cost more than $200,000 to retrieve the records.

“I don’t think they have any intention of ever giving me anything,” said Policy Director Cheryl Sattler.

Since its rollout 4½ years ago, the reading initiative authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act has been hounded by allegations that contracts were awarded to favor key consultants and publishers. Last fall, the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, both launched inquiries. (“Inspector General to Conduct Broad Audits of Reading First,” Nov. 9, 2005.)

67 Weeks, $200,000

The complaints by Success for All, which administers a reading-based, whole-school improvement program, were instrumental in spurring the federal reviews.

Ms. Sattler said she was discouraged after being told by the Education Department that the search of e-mail records of federal employees she requested would take 67 weeks of staff time and cost more than $200,000—more than four times the estimate given earlier this year.

Technology workers for the department said that the e-mail records would need to be retrieved and redacted in their entirety and that the department’s server did not allow simpler search methods such as the use of keywords, according to Ms. Sattler.

“In a program that has so much secrecy, so many accusations, they are just piling up question upon question,” she said.

Last week, the foundation received an answer on a FOIA request submitted in June 2005. The Education Department wrote Ms. Sattler Aug. 17 that staff members were “unable to locate” any correspondence and e-mail messages between the department and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the division of the National Institutes of Health that oversees reading research, regarding the Reading First program.

G. Reid Lyon, who directed the reading-research program at the NICHD, helped design the Reading First program and was reassigned to the Education Department for a time before he left his post in summer 2005. The letter does not detail how the department staff searched for the print and electronic records the foundation requested.

The Education Department would not comment on the case because of the pending litigation, according to a spokeswoman.

The nature of the bias complaint Georgia officials filed against the Education Department’s inspector general’s office is not known.

Cindy Cupp, a former state education official and the publisher of a reading-textbook series, filed numerous complaints with both the Georgia and federal inspectors general last year. She claims that Georgia officials, under the advice of federal representatives, illegally steered local grantees away from using her reading texts.

The Savannah, Ga.-based publisher of Dr. Cupp’s Readers has been denied documents related to a complaint letter sent by state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox this past spring to federal Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. In his response, Mr. Higgins urges Georgia officials to keep the correspondence between their offices “confidential for now” due to the ongoing audit and review of the bias allegations.

Officials could not comment on the case.

‘Let 12-Year-Olds Loose’

The inspector general expects to release the first of five probes of the Reading First program within the next few weeks. The GAO study is due out in mid-January.

In June, the federal Education Department released a plan for improving responses to open-records requests.

But Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va., said the ordeal the Success for All Foundation has had in seeking information “sounds suspicious.”

“It’s possible that they have an absolutely, completely backward [computer] system, but I would think somebody could figure out how to get these folks what they need,” without it requiring so much time and money, she said. “Maybe [the department] should purchase Outlook [or another commercial e-mail system that can easily retrieve and search through messages] … or they should let some 12-year-olds loose on their servers to find what they need.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Reading First’ FOIA Requests Hampered by Delays, Costs

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