Any time the U.S. Department of Education gets a nudge to move on FOIA requests, particularly those related to the Reading First program, it gets my full attention. I have tussled with the department a number of times over the last six years, constantly nagging and prodding for documents that should be readily available but somehow take months, even years, to find and process.
I’m not the only one to hit such hurdles.
Now CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) has won a round with this federal court judgment. The Washington-based organization, which uses FOIA, litigation, and research to root out corrupt activities in government, filed a document request with the department two years ago. The request was stalled by a department decision that CREW was not eligible for a fee waiver and would have to pay for the request. Similar FOIA requests by other organizations have been halted when the department suggested that they could cost upwards of $100,000 in staff time and printing costs. CREW appealed the decision on its request repeatedly until it was sent to the court for judgment.
Congress requires federal agencies waive processing and printing fees for FOIA requests if the information is (1) “in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the government” and (2) “not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(iii). This mandate removes “the
roadblocks and technicalities which have been used by . . . agencies to deny waivers.”
So CREW won the argument on the fee waivers.
I’m anxious to see what turns up in the documents. CREW is looking for calendar entries and correspondence that show if and when publishers met with federal officials. Much of the controversy over Reading First—outlined in the Inspector General reports on the program—was over real or perceived favor given to some publishers over others. It will be interesting to see what publishers’ reps had an audience with federal officials at the time decisions were being made over states’ Reading First plans...and particularly if any met with Spellings, who was domestic policy advisor at the White House until she became Education Secretary in 2005.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.