Georgia education officials mismanaged several aspects of the federal Reading First program, says a report by the inspector general’s office of the U.S. Department of Education.
The failing, according to the report, resulted in confusion over policies and procedures, the hiring of underqualified grant reviewers, inconsistencies in how local grant proposals were reviewed, and the unfair treatment of some vendors.
“Without written policies and procedures in place for performing administrative responsibilities, [the Georgia Department of Education] did not effectively manage and monitor its Reading First program,” the report released Jan. 19 concludes.
The state has received more than $90 million from the $1 billion-a-year federal initiative authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act to improve reading instruction in low-performing schools. But unlike the outcomes of two previous reviews of state implementation of the program, in Wisconsin and New York, the inspector general did not recommend that Georgia return any federal money. The three state audits were undertaken and written by different regional offices.
The report, the fourth in a series of audits of Reading First conducted by the inspector general, confirms many of the complaints made by a Georgia publisher over the past several years, which were a catalyst for the federal investigation of the program.
“I described that this was happening in Georgia over a three-year period, and now the IG has confirmed it was happening,” said Cindy Cupp, the Savannah-based publisher of a reading series. “It’s too late to do anything about it now, and it appears no one is being held accountable or responsible for actions that not only in my opinion harmed a small publisher, but greatly restricted the textbook-selection process for teachers in the state.”
Ms. Cupp complained to the Georgia education department early in the implementation of the program after local school officials said they could no longer use her program, Dr. Cupp Readers & Journal Writers, because grant reviewers indicated it did not meet the requirements under Reading First for research-based instructional materials. (“State Officials Cry Foul Over Reading Audit,” Nov. 15, 2006.)
She later learned that one of the grant reviewers noted on the district’s Reading First application that her readers were “not SBRR,” or aligned with “scientifically based reading research,” even though the reviewer had never seen the textbook series.
The roots of the investigations into the nation’s federal reading program began in Georgia.
March 2005: Cindy Cupp, a former curriculum and reading director for the Georgia education department, files complaints with the state inspector general for state actions that she claims effectively blocked schools applying for federal Reading First money from using the textbooks she publishes.
June 2005: The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Education opens an investigation into allegations of mismanagement in the Reading First program after complaints are brought by Ms. Cupp and the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation.
September 2005: Republican and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate request an investigation of Reading First by the Government Accountability Office.
September 2006: The first in a series of reports by the inspector general’s office concludes that some areas of Reading First were mismanaged, that panels of grant reviewers may have been stacked with advocates of a specific teaching method, and that federal officials may have overstepped their authority in advising states on the types of materials and assessments they could use as part of the $1 billion-a-year initiative.
October 2006: An inspector general’s audit of Wisconsin’s Reading First program concludes that state officials there failed to hold grantees to strict implementation requirements.
November 2006: The inspector general releases an audit of the New York state Reading First program, finding that nine districts, including New York City, received grants even though their applications did not meet requirements, and recommends that much of the money issued to them be returned.
January 2007: A report on Georgia’s implementation of the Reading First initiative finds that officials there failed to outline formal policies and procedures for the program, and had appeared to treat some vendors unfairly when local districts applied for their share of the more than $90 million in federal money the state received.
SOURCE: Education Week
State officials later told Ms. Cupp that her reading program would have to undergo a review by outside researchers before it could be approved for use in Reading First schools in Georgia, even though the state’s approved grant did not contain such a mandate.
Ms. Cupp then submitted her materials to the Reading First technical-assistance center at Florida State University, which had been reviewing commercial reading programs. The center, however, would review Dr. Cupp Readers as supplemental materials only, not as a core program.
Ms. Cupp has since filed complaints with the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing that Georgia’s refusal to consider her reading series as a core program that met Reading First requirements undermined her ability to market her products to participating districts.
After Ms. Cupp complained to state officials, they agreed the review was not required.
The inspector general’s report found that state education officials added the requirement, creating “the appearance of unfair treatment for some vendors to have to undergo additional requirements.”
Georgia officials also did not properly screen consultants they hired to review local grant proposals, the review found, and many did not meet the desired qualifications, such as having experience with scientifically based reading research or with reviewing reading texts.
Changes Too Late?
Georgia officials disagreed with some of the findings of the inspector general, but said they would follow the report’s recommendations that they detail the program’s policies and procedures in writing. According to the report, Georgia’s policies were based primarily on the “memory of the [state] Reading First staff.”
“We have already addressed many of the concerns raised by the auditors in their report, and there are some findings that we disagree with,” state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said in a statement. “I am confident that Reading First has been implemented in Georgia with integrity and in compliance with federal regulations.”
For Ms. Cupp, any changes made to the program are too late, she said. Most of the Reading First grants have already been issued, and participating districts cannot make changes to their instructional materials without resubmitting their applications or formally requesting the change.
Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. released a scathing report in September that suggested federal employees may have favored the use of some reading programs and methods over others, and may have overstepped their legal authority in dictating to states how to implement the program. (“Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’,” Oct. 4, 2006.)
A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Inspector General Faults Handling of ‘Reading First’ in Ga.