Bush’s reading program gets an F

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

A scorching internal review of the Bush administration’s reading program says the Education Department ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted.

The government audit is unsparing in its review of Reading First, a billion-dollar annual program, and says it has been beset 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 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 that the department’s inspector general released yesterday.

“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 Reading First director wrote, according to the report.

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

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pledged to swiftly adopt all of the audit’s recommendations. She also pledged a review of every Reading First grant.

“I am concerned about these actions and committed to addressing and resolving them,” she 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, Mr. Bush’s education law. Just this week, a separate review found that the effort is helping schools raise achievement.

About 1,500 school districts have received $4.8 billion in Reading First grants. But from the start, the program has also been dogged by accusations of impropriety, leading to several ongoing audits. The new report from the Office of Inspector General — an independent arm of the Education Department — calls into question basic matters of credibility.

When the department fails to follow the law and its own guidance, the report states, “it can only serve to undermine the public’s confidence in the department.”

The ranking Democrat on the House education committee was furious.

“They should fire everyone who was involved in this,” said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat. “This was not an accident, this was not an oversight. This was an intentional effort to corrupt the process.”

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