Reading & Literacy

Watchdog’s Oversight Is Having Wide Impact

By Michelle R. Davis — April 03, 2007 6 min read
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When Cindy Cupp met with two lawyers from the Department of Education’s office of inspector general in December 2005 about her complaints that the Reading First program was biased toward some providers, she was impressed.

They listened intently, took notes, and seemed to have near-photographic memories for the information she provided. After months of trying to get federal officials to take notice of her concerns, it was a relief, she recalled recently.

“At the time, I thought they were the two most brilliant people I’d ever met,” said Ms. Cupp, the Savannah, Ga.-based publisher of a reading series that bears her name.

Staff members from the inspector general’s office routinely fan out across the country to investigate allegations of misuse of federal education funds or lack of compliance with program rules, as well as to perform routine audits. But in its unique role, the office also has to turn a critical eye on the Education Department itself. The office reports to the secretary of education, but also serves as a watchdog—both within the department and for how federal programs are carried out by its grantees.

“Our job is to protect the integrity of government programs and operations; improve program efficiency and effectiveness; prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse in federal agencies; and keep agency heads, Congress, and the American people fully and currently informed of the findings of the IG’s work,” Education Department Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. wrote last week in response to written questions from Education Week.

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The inspector general’s office has been at the center of a high-profile storm over the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program, with a series of critical reports on how the initiative was administered.

The office also has made news with its investigative reports in other areas.

For example, in 2005, Mr. Higgins investigated the Education Department’s public relations activities—then under fire after the hiring of the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams under a department contract to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Williams had not publicly disclosed the financial arrangement until it came to light in media reports.

In a review of the department’s public relations contracts, Mr. Higgins found that the arrangement with Mr. Williams did not constitute covert government propaganda in violation of federal law, but said that the public relations effort had failed to include disclaimers that would have alerted the public that the government was underwriting the message.

Credit Cards to Grants

The office, which has 300 staff members in 17 locations, is charged with conducting financial audits of department programs, investigating alleged wrongdoing, and inspections. Some inquiries are requested by the secretary of education or members of Congress, although the Reading First investigation was prompted by complaints from vendors of reading materials.

Department of Education Oversight

The predecessor to the Department of Education’s office of inspector general was created in 1978 when the Inspector General Act established 12 oversight offices in various federal agencies. At the time, the office operated under the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. A separate office of inspector general was formed when the Education Department was created in 1980.

INSPECTOR GENERAL:

John P. Higgins Jr.


John P. Higgins Jr., who has served in the position since 2002
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES:
300
LOCATIONS:
Inspector general’s office staff members work in 17 offices across the United States, including in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. BUDGET: $48.5 million in fiscal year 2007
DUTIES: Audit education grants, check credit card use by department employees, recommend management improvements

SOURCE: Department of Education

The IG’s office also investigates reports of employee misuse of Education Department credit cards, examines allegations of grantees’ improper use of federal money, and evaluates federal programs to make sure they’re following federal mandates.

In a May 2006 report to Congress on the office’s previous six months of work, Mr. Higgins told lawmakers that his office had identified $1.5 million in questioned costs and more than $5.6 million in costs that did not appear to have been spent according to law, and concluded that more than $10 million in spending could have been put to better use.

Mr. Higgins’ own career path is interwoven with the history of the inspector general’s office. He has served in various jobs, including deputy inspector general, for some 30 years, including time when it was part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

When Rod Paige became President Bush’s first secretary of education in 2001, he tapped Mr. Higgins to lead a committee that assessed management problems within the Education Department. In 2002, Mr. Higgins became the inspector general.

Mr. Higgins said the office has had a significant impact in several areas within the department, particularly on student-financial-aid programs and operations. During the 1980s, the OIG consistently found abuses involving such practices as colleges’ enrollment of ineligible students or pursuit of loans for “ghost students,” and lenders’ falsification of information on loan applicants.

The $400 billion federal student-loan program continues to be a strong focus of the office’s oversight, Mr. Higgins said. A recent OIG investigation led to the arrest of a Nevada grandmother, who was convicted of using more than 65 false identities to apply for $1 million in federal student aid.

The office has also helped improve organizational structures within the department, which in the 1990s was plagued by financial mismanagement. As a result, in part, of the office’s recommendations on internal management, the department received its first clean outside audit, from the accounting firm of Ernst & Young in 2003, Mr. Higgins said.

“We helped put mechanisms in place to help the department stay the course, and they have, receiving a clean opinion for five years in a row,” he wrote.

These days the office is spending more time on federal elementary and secondary education programs, as the federal No Child Left Behind Act has provided increased aid in that area, said Catherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the OIG.

A Natural Tension

Generally, Mr. Higgins said, the office’s recommendations are well received. For example, the Education Department says it has adopted every recommendation the office has suggested for the Reading First program.

Because the office has no enforcement powers, it’s critical for it to be viewed within the department as an objective entity, said Lorraine P. Lewis, Mr. Higgins’ predecessor, who served as inspector general under Secretaries of Education Richard W. Riley and Rod Paige from 1999 to 2002.

“The key is to do that in a professional and credible and smart way, so that when [the inspector general’s office] may bear bad news—and they oftentimes do—the recipient will say, ‘That’s a tough thing to read, but I understand what they’re saying, and I understand the recommendations,’ ” Ms. Lewis said.

But recommendations are “not a done deal,” said Brian W. Jones, who served as the general counsel for the Education Department during President Bush’s first term, said there are many times “when the IG brings a very good perspective because [the office is] not vested in the practical day-to-day of the program. But it would be a mistake to assume the IG necessarily has an infallible perspective on things.”

On Reading First, Ms. Cupp saw the results of the office’s investigation in the form of an inspector general’s report released in January, and she was generally pleased. The report found that the state of Georgia had mismanaged several aspects of the Reading First program, including the appearance of unfair treatment when it came to some possible Reading First providers. (“Inspector General Faults Handling of ‘Reading First’ in Ga.,” Jan. 31, 2007.)

But she thought the report didn’t tell the whole story.

“What they put down was accurate, but they left out huge pieces,” Ms. Cupp said, adding that some omissions pertained to what she viewed as failings by Education Department employees. “I can’t say they were susceptible to pressure, but I know that major parts have been omitted.”

The inspector general’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Ms. Cupp’s statement.

Ms. Lewis said that criticism is not unusual, and that the inspector general and those who work in the office know that their jobs are difficult because of the critical eye they must cast on the department.

“If it gets to be difficult or unpleasant, that’s part of the job,” she said. “At the core is the independence that guides you in your work.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Watchdog’s Oversight Is Having Wide Impact

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