Considering recent scandals – such as those involving former Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff – and allegations regarding detainee abuse, corruption may seem a normal or even indispensable part of national government. A report issued by the Department of Education’s inspector general last month revealed that Reading First, a part of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, is another blemish on the Bush legacy. Perhaps unsurprisingly given everything else going wrong on Bush’s watch, the series of abuses found in the Reading First program has been grossly underreported. This apathy toward dishonesty, however, prevents government accountability and keeps effective resources from students who should benefit from the program.
Reading First provides money to underprivileged schools that implement “scientifically based” methods of teaching reading, with the goal of using empirical evidence to avoid wasting money on the latest trends in reading education. Yet the report revealed notable abuses, including favoritism toward textbook companies that paid royalties to members of the program’s grant panels and far from transparent standards for obtaining grant funding – leading to funding for unproven methods.
The Department of Education must be held responsible for its lack of oversight and mishandling of the billion-dollar initiative. The series of flagrant abuses that occurred under the pretense of promoting effective learning methods reflect blatant negligence and incompetence, not simply minor shortcomings in the department. Endorsing reading programs and teaching materials that are backed by commercial monetary interests but which haven’t been scientifically proven to increase reading performance undermines the goals of Reading First. The program was intended to improve the education of young children, not to further inflate the revenues of textbook companies.
Chris Doherty, the program’s director, has become the poster boy for the pervasively dishonest practices found in Reading First. He sent a series of unprofessional e-mails explicitly acknowledging favoritism toward business interests at the expense of potentially better programs. In one such e-mail, he wrote, “we need to beat the (expletive) out of them in front of all the would be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.” Such behavior draws into question how the department could put Doherty in charge of a budget of roughly a billion dollars a year. Although Doherty has since resigned, the Department of Education needs to be held responsible for such fraudulent behavior.
Even if Reading First has improved test scores, as indicated in a study by the Center on Education Policy, the program’s unjust partiality to business interests and its failure to support some scientifically proven teaching methods jeopardizes its effectiveness and breadth. The importance of education, the primary goal of the program, is compromised by these abuses of authority. Regardless of the many infamous cases of government wrongdoings, governmental accountability should never fall from favor and corruption should never be viewed as commonplace. With each new revelation of corruption under the Bush Administration – from no-bid Halliburton contracts to fraudulently run education programs – merely drawing wider yawns, it seems Americans are accepting corruption as an unavoidable part of government. In the case of the Reading First scandal, that complacency hurts children’s chances. More broadly, such acceptance of corruption threatens the ability of public-sector programs to ensure an equitable society.