Federal

Senate Report Details ‘Reading First’ Conflicts of Interest

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 09, 2007 4 min read
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A new congressional report suggests that at least one former Reading First consultant actively pushed his own commercial products while serving as a key adviser to states on applying for the reading grants, contrary to his testimony last month at a federal hearing.

The report released today by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee includes financial statements of that consultant, Edward J. Kame’enui, and his counterparts at the U.S. Department of Education’s regional technical-assistance centers, as well as the details of some contracts between the consultants and commercial publishers.

“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,” said the report, released by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the education committee.

Last month, Sen. Kennedy issued formal requests for documents from a number of Reading First contractors, including those who served as directors of three regional technical-assistance centers that provided advice to states on meeting the grant program’s strict guidelines.

The report details the financial ties of the former directors of those centers: Douglas Carnine and Mr. Kame’enui from the University of Oregon; Joseph Torgesen at Florida State University; and Sharon Vaughn at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mr. Kame’enui is currently on leave from his university while he serves as the commissioner for the National Center for Special Education Research at the Department of Education. He testified at a contentious hearing before the House education committee last month that there were no “real conflicts of interest” among him and his colleagues who served as advisers on Reading First. He also said that he never promoted the products he had written.

Yet the Senate report highlights e-mail exchanges among Mr. Kame’enui and a representative of Pearson Scott Foresman, which publishes his reading intervention program, that suggest they collaborated to influence a top Education Department official’s view of the text. After a meeting between the official and the publisher, Mr. Kame’enui wrote that “Pearson is in a favorable position to exact influence” with the official.

The meeting in June 2002 was during the grant-review process for Reading First.

“Dr. Kame’enui acted and lobbied on behalf of Scott Foresman, from whom he was receiving compensation, while he was the team leader of the Reading First assessment committee and as director of the Reading First Western Technical Assistance Center,” the Senate report says. “Throughout his tenure as director, … Dr. Kame’enui continued to attend and present at various reading conferences and meetings on Scott Foresman’s behalf,” it says.

The Early Intervention Reading program that he co-wrote with Deborah C. Simmons, a former education professor at the University of Oregon, is widely used in Reading First schools.

‘Always Forthcoming’

The inspector general of the Education Department concluded in February in the final of six reports on Reading First that the program’s primary contractor, RMC Research Corp., did not properly screen its subcontractors for conflicts of interest. The Portsmouth, N.H.-based research company managed the technical-assistance centers under a $37 million federal contract.

“I find it very disappointing to think that these activities were going on for four years and no one at the Department of Education took the time to follow through not only with publisher complaints, but with complaints from school systems,” said Cindy Cupp, the publisher of a reading program who registered complaints that led to inquiries by the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Those reviews generally supported her claims that federal officials charged with implementing the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program favored certain commercial programs and worked to prohibit the use of others. The No Child Left Behind Act, which authorized the reading initiative, prohibits federal officials from directing states toward specific curricula, assessments, or instructional approaches. Ms. Vaughn said in an interview that her outside ventures were vetted by the University of Texas for conflicts of interest.

“I have always been forthcoming about my outside sources of income, and at no time was I influenced by any financial relationships with publishers, nor were these relationships relevant to Reading First during my tenure as director” of the regional technical-assistance center, she said.

Mr. Carnine, the author of college textbooks and middle and high school instructional programs in several subjects, said he does not receive any royalties from publishers of K-3 reading programs. Mr. Torgesen did not respond to a request for comment. The Education Department did not respond to a request for an interview with Mr. Kame’enui.

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