Justice Investigates Reading First

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The Justice Department has begun a probe of the Reading First program, one of the Bush administration’s signature efforts to boost youth literacy.

The $1 billion-a-year program provides grants to states to improve reading instruction for children in the primary grades, usually through tutoring and materials supplied by contractors.

According to several government reports, the Department of Education relied heavily on private contractors appointed to Reading First panels for advice on how to distribute the funds. Reports last year by the department’s inspector general charged that some of the contractors had pushed states to buy reading programs and materials with which they had financial connections. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report backs up those findings.

In March, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies that she will name an outside advisory committee to oversee implementation of Reading First.

Robert Slavin told the subcommittee that Spellings’ promise comes too late for services such as his – the nonprofit Success for All Foundation – that were shut out of Reading First services in many states. He said schools have already chosen their curricula. The department is essentially saying, after playing for eight innings with corked bats, “From now on, we’re using honest bats.

“It’s 23 to nothing. You can’t just say, ‘From now on.’ ”