When good programs go bad

When will Americans learn that federalizing a problem almost always creates another?

Take Reading First, an ambitious federal program designedto raise the reading scores of the 40 percent of students nationwide who lack basic mastery of the foundational learning skill. Once the exclusive province of local school boards, reading has since become a big business, with the federal government being the main player. Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Education has handed out $4.2 billion in grants to states adopting “proven instructional and assessment tools” using the best scientifically based research.

State-reported test scores released for the first time in mid-April indicate that fluency and comprehension increased among first- through third-graders in the Reading First program, although not nearly as much as one might expect, considering the amount of tax dollars spent. However, dark clouds threaten to obscure the program’s achievements.

The Education Department Web site declares that there is no “approved list” of educational products that qualify for Reading First grants, but department officials have been accused of tailoring federal standards to specific products, including Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, an oral fluency assessment.

Education Department Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. recently told a congressional committee that following an audit, he referred the program to the Justice Department for further investigation of conflict of interest allegations. Last fall, Higgins charged that former program director Christopher J. Doherty may have stacked the expert panels used to select grant recipients with consultants who also had business ties to commercial vendors.

A February 2007 General Accountability Office report concluded that Reading First “lacked written procedures to guide interactions with the states and provided limited information on its monitoring procedures” — an unacceptably vague standard when $4.2 billion is at stake.

Doherty denies any conflict of interest and claims that Reading First’s record has been “distorted.” The Justice Department will decide whether criminal charges should be filed, but similar cozy relationships between federal officials and recipients of federal grants became familiar topics in Washington news coverage since before the Pentagon was caught paying $600 apiece for toilet seats. No-bid contracts, secretive earmarks and revolving doors have blurred the once-clear ethical line separating public servants from private profiteers.

Federal employees are supposed to make sure our tax dollars are spent efficiently and effectively. They can’t exercise appropriate oversight if they’re hoping to “cash in” later on expertise gained at the public’s expense. It’s time to draw that line again bright and clear, and throw the book at anybody who steps over it.

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