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`Reading First' Fails Audit

The Education Dept. broke the law and ethics rules, a review says. One official is likely to quit.

September 23, 2006|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A scorching internal review of the Bush administration's billion-dollar-a-year reading program says the Education Department ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted.

The federal audit is unsparing in its view that the Reading First program has been damaged by conflicts of interest and willful mismanagement. It suggests the department broke the law by trying to dictate which curriculum schools must use.

It also depicts a program in which review panels were stacked with people who shared the director's views, and in which only favored publishers of reading curricula could get money.

In one e-mail, the director told a staff member to come down hard on a company he didn't support, according to the report released Friday by the department's inspector general.

"They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags," the program director wrote, the report says.

That official, Chris Doherty, is resigning in the coming days, department spokeswoman Katherine McLane said Friday. Asked if his quitting was in response to the report, she said only that Doherty was returning to the private sector after five years at the agency. Doherty declined to comment.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pledged to swiftly adopt all the audit's recommendations. She also promised a review of every Reading First grant her agency had approved.

"When something undermines the credibility of this department, or the standing of any program, I'm going to spring into action," Spellings said.

Reading First aims to help young children read through scientifically proven programs, and the department considers it a jewel of No Child Left Behind, Bush's education law. Just this week, a separate review found the effort is helping schools raise achievement.

But from the start, the program has been dogged by accusations of impropriety, leading to several ongoing audits. The report from the Office of Inspector General, an independent arm of the Education Department, calls into question the program's credibility.

The ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee was furious.

"They should fire everyone who was involved in this," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "This was not an accident; this was not an oversight. This was an intentional effort to corrupt the process."

Spellings said the problems happened early in the program, which began in 2002, before she was secretary. She said those responsible had left the agency or been reassigned.

About 1,500 school districts have received $4.8 billion in Reading First grants.

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