Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First

Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, by Sol Stern, is an in-depth and alarming study of Reading First's betrayal.

President Bush vowed he would "leave no child behind." The centerpiece of his education agenda was Reading First, a new federal program aimed at helping poor children acquire basic reading skills. Under the leadership of White House domestic policy chief Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne) and with support from Congress, Reading First was to provide funding to primary-reading programs that were based on scientific research. Christopher Doherty became Reading First's new director. His job was to ensure that Reading First schools used only programs that work and shunned those that don't.

Backlash and brouhaha followed. Aggrieved whole-language program proprietors complained bitterly that their wares couldn't be purchased with Reading First funds. They found a receptive ear in the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a bastion of green eyeshade and Dragnet types who weren't the least bit interested in children learning to read. The OIG launched a witch hunt against Doherty, falsely claiming that he was improperly favoring particular publishers. Despite the lack of evidence and the fact that Doherty was acting with the full knowledge and support of Margaret Spellings, this conscientious and hard-working public servant was forced to resign. Then the administration turned its back on Reading First, allowing the program to be gutted and starved of funding.

This report cites the real scandals of Reading First:

  • An influential "progressive" lawmaker, Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, slashed by over $600 million the budget of one of the most effective programs for poor children in the federal government--the only No Child Left Behind program that has received plaudits from both the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Management and Budget.
  • President Bush and Secretary Spellings hung Chris Doherty out to dry, even though he was following their orders and acting aggressively (and heroically) to ensure that only effective programs got money under Reading First.
  • Another influential "progressive" lawmaker, Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, hauled Doherty before his panel and browbeat him for carrying out the very policies that Miller had helped to craft.
  • The Education Department's Inspector General pursued a reckless, one-sided investigation and was not held accountable for his actions. Who inspects the inspectors in today's Washington?
  • Most of all, millions of poor children are suffering from the political games of adults-toying with the Reading First program, its implementation, and its budget.

 

Related Resources

In A Nutshell brief of the report

At A Glance: a look at state-by-state funding

Video from March 10 press conference

Transcript of Michael Petrilli's remarks at March 10 press conference

Freedom of Information Act Request

Letter to the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency & Integrity Committee's Response

Letter to Congressman Obey urging him to publicly disclose the extent of his relationship with Robert Slavin

 

Fordham demands investigation into real Reading First scandals

Press Release - March 10, 2008

Fordham demands investigation into real Reading First scandals

Calls for Secretary Margaret Spellings, Rep. David Obey and ED's Office of the Inspector General to account for their actions

Washington--At a press conference held outside the U.S. Department of Education headquarters today, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute demanded an inquiry into scandalous efforts by the executive and legislative branches to sabotage the Reading First program.

Designed to help poor children learn primary-reading skills, Reading First is the only program among the many contained in the No Child Left Behind act to receive stamps of approval from both the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Yet, Reading First's funding has been slashed by two-thirds, the Bush Administration has gone AWOL on this once-loved program, and its first director, Christopher Doherty, was forced to resign--all purportedly because of a "scandal" uncovered by the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Fordham's latest report, Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First, written by City Journal contributing editor Sol Stern, reveals the real scandals that have yet to be brought to public attention:

  • Millions of poor, illiterate children are suffering because of the political games of adults who have undercut the implementation, budget and positive impact of the Reading First program.
  • Doherty was sacrificed for vigorously doing his job: making sure that only effective reading programs received funding--just as Congress envisioned and the White House intended--while intervening when taxpayer dollars flowed to unreliable programs.
  • For doing his job, Doherty and his team were subjected to a reckless, one-sided, hydra-headed investigation by the Department of Education's OIG. After failing to uncover any financial wrongdoing, corruption, or abuse, the OIG published a weak, mostly unsubstantiated report that called Doherty's integrity into question with little or no evidence.
  • Doherty was hung out to dry, even though he was doing the bidding of President Bush and then- domestic policy advisor Margaret Spellings (then LaMontagne). From her office in the West Wing, Spellings oversaw the Reading First program. She was Doherty's de facto supervisor. Her invisible fingerprints were all over every key decision made by Doherty. Yet only Doherty came to grief.
  • President Bush and Secretary Spellings have allowed Reading First's budget to be gutted, and a once top administration priority has fallen by the wayside.
  • Chairman David Obey (D-WI) of the House education appropriations subcommittee slashed Reading First's budget by over $600 million in fiscal 2008.
  • Chairman Obey is known to be a longtime supporter of Robert Slavin, developer of the Success for All reading program, who has publicly stated that he was angry Success for All was not receiving more federal funds under Reading First. He urged the OIG to investigate Doherty. Following the OIG report, Slavin demanded that Reading First's budget be substantially cut--which Obey did.

"Maybe Secretary Spellings and her team hoped that throwing Chris Doherty over the side would resolve the matter and save the program," said Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "That obviously didn't happen. This is the sort of tragedy that Shakespeare or Sophocles would have relished."

In order to get to the bottom of the Reading First tragedy, the Fordham Institute took these actions today:

  • Filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, demanding that all correspondence, including e-mails, between Secretary Spellings, as well as other Education Department senior staff, and the OIG, related to the audit of the Reading First program be made available.
  • Wrote the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency requesting an independent investigation into the manner in which the OIG accepted, conducted, and reported its audit of the Reading First program.
  • Sent a letter to Congressman Obey urging him to publicly disclose the full extent of his association with Slavin, including correspondence, e-mails or conversations he and/or his staff had with Slavin and/or his staff about the Reading First program and its funding. Furthermore, the letter asks that Congressman Obey disclose whether he has ever received any campaign contributions or gifts from Slavin or his associates.

Fordham also believes the media should probe why Secretary Spellings was unwilling to stand up for Doherty, and why she has repeatedly failed to defend Reading First from the assaults of Congress.