Reading & Literacy

‘Reading First’ Details Sought by Lawmakers

By David J. Hoff — October 10, 2006 7 min read
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Two prominent Democrats are demanding to know more about the problems identified in the implementation of the federal Reading First program, including whether criminal violations may have occurred and what Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings may have known about the problems while she was a White House aide.

In the wake of a report last month that found U.S. Department of Education officials had acted improperly in administering Reading First, Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa have asked the Bush administration to provide additional information about how the $1 billion-a-year program has been carried out.

Rep. Miller also has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a criminal inquiry based on findings in the report, issued by the Education Department’s inspector general.

“He thinks that there could be [criminal violations], so he wants them to investigate,” Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. Miller said last week. As of late last week, Rep. Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, had not received a response from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Mr. Kiley said.

Separately, Sen. Harkin has asked Secretary Spellings to fully explain whether she had any involvement in or knowledge of the actions outlined in the Sept. 22 report, which covered a period when Rod Paige was secretary of education.

The report said it appeared that department officials had improperly organized an advisory panel to favor a specific teaching method and may have exceeded their legal authority by requiring states to adopt specific curricula to qualify for Reading First grants.

“It is hard to imagine that Secretary Spellings didn’t know anything about the abuses described in the inspector general’s report,” Sen. Harkin said in a Sept. 29 Senate floor speech. He said he suspected that Ms. Spellings had been closely tracking what was happening with the Reading First program in her role as White House domestic-policy adviser during President Bush’s first term.

The inspector general’s report covers actions from 2001 to 2003—the first two years of Mr. Bush’s presidency.

“Instead of making others take the fall for what happened, she needs to stand up and say whether she had any knowledge of or involvement in these activities when she worked in the White House,” Sen. Harkin said of Ms. Spellings.

‘Individual Mistakes’

In a Sept. 19 letter to the inspector general responding to the findings, which was released along with the report last month, Ms. Spellings said the inspector general had found problems that “reflect individual mistakes” by Education Department officials, and that all of those actions happened before she became secretary in January 2005.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Spellings declined comment on Sen. Harkin’s questions about her role in Reading First, but referred to the secretary’s letter to the inspector general.

For several years, education officials in various states have complained that federal Education Department officials forced them to adopt specific reading programs to receive approval to get grants from Reading First. The 4½-year-old initiative, part of the No Child Left Behind Act, seeks to raise the reading achievement of disadvantaged students in the early grades.

In his report, department Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. documented actions by department officials that favored the direct instruction method of teaching reading and their efforts to force states to abandon curricula that didn’t use that method. (“Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

Mr. Higgins plans to release five more reports about the Reading First program before the end of the year, which will evaluate how the department selected a technical-assistance provider for the program and explain several states’ attempts to get their plans approved by the department. In January, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, plans to release its own report on the program.

Some officials who worked closely with the Reading First program said the Education Department’s in-house lawyers reviewed all of the grant-application guidelines to ensure they complied with the law. The inspector general’s report said that the guidance didn’t accurately reflect the law’s requirements.

“We had lawyers scrub that actual proposal, the guidance,” Susan B. Neuman, who was the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education from March 2001 through January 2003, said in an interview. “Nothing could have gotten through the final process if in fact it was not within the law.”

Robert W. Sweet, who helped write the Reading First legislation as a senior staff member for the House education committee, said the Education Department’s guidance for the program was reviewed and approved by aides for House and Senate members from both parties.

Some former officials, meanwhile, have suggested that Secretary Spellings is downplaying her involvement with the Reading First program while she worked at the White House.

Ms. Spellings “micromanaged the implementation of Reading First from her West Wing office,” Michael J. Petrilli, who worked as an aide to then-Secretary Paige during the president’s first term, wrote on Sept. 28 on the National Review’s Web site. Mr. Petrilli is now a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank.

“She was the leading cheerleader for an aggressive approach,” he also wrote about Ms. Spellings in the article.

Eugene W. Hickok, who held the No. 2 and No. 3 posts at the Education Department under Mr. Paige, said in an interview that Ms. Spellings “was very much engaged in No Child Left Behind.”

“I would be surprised if Margaret didn’t have a pretty good sense of what was going on in Reading First,” said Mr. Hickok, who is a senior policy director at Dutko Worldwide, a Washington-based public-affairs firm.

Funding Plans Pending

To date, the Reading First program has awarded $5 billion to 1,700 districts and 5,600 schools. President Bush proposed Reading First as a key ingredient in the effort to have all children reach proficiency in reading and mathematics—the main goal of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Even with Inspector General Higgins’ highly critical report on how Reading First has been implemented, leading members of Congress appear to be more interested in fixing any problems with the program than in scrapping it and starting over, according to statements by lawmakers and interviews with congressional aides.

Because members are waiting for the rest of the inspector general’s findings and the GAO report, Congress is unlikely to alter the program this year. With the House and the Senate in recess, no legislative business will be conducted until after the November elections. In the short session scheduled to start the week after the elections, Congress is expected to be busy handling an agenda that includes passing remaining appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

In the version of the Senate spending bill that includes the Education Department’s budget, which is awaiting action in that chamber, Reading First would receive $1 billion, or $29 million less than in fiscal 2006 and in the plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee this past summer. Overall, Reading First and the other NCLB programs would receive $14.4 billion in the Senate Appropriation Committee’s fiscal 2007 bill, about the same as last year. The House committee’s bill would provide $14.6 billion for those programs.

Underdoing Oversight?

In addition to his call for a federal criminal inquiry, Rep. Miller, the California Democrat, asked his Republican colleagues—who are in the majority—to conduct oversight hearings on the Reading First program.

“He feels like the Republicans have fallen down on oversight in general,” said Mr. Kiley, the spokesman for Mr. Miller. “What you’re finding is the inspector general is stepping into the void left by Congress.”

The House education committee plans to hold a variety of hearings next year in preparation for the No Child Left Behind reauthorization. One of those will focus on Reading First and will deal with the inspector general’s findings, said Lindsey Mask, a spokeswoman for Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the committee’s chairman.

And if the Democrats win control of the House or the Senate—or both—in the midterm elections, they will aggressively investigate all sorts of decisions made by the Bush administration, one longtime observer of Congress predicts.

“There is no doubt that Republicans have shirked their responsibility for overseeing the implementation of laws and conduct of agencies on a range of domestic and foreign policies, including education,” said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “A Democratic majority in 2007 would almost certainly be more active and aggressive in its oversight.”

Associate Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Reading First’ Details Sought By Lawmakers

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