All But One Company Left Behind

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Six months after giving public school principals a chance to propose a new literacy program for their schools, education officials in Albany have decided to reward millions of dollars in contracts to a company with close ties to the Bush administration.

As part of his No Child Left Behind education campaign, President George W. Bush last year doled out $328 million for states to invest in reading programs for their poorest schools. New York State put its $82 million toward 251 schools, and told them that as long as the curriculum followed strict federal guidelines, educators in each school district could come up with a program and choose local partners best suited for their schools.

Many of the schools’ leaders did just that, spending hundreds of hours crafting proposals and submitting them to the state. But at a statewide conference for the grant winners in late July, they were told the state Department of Education had made its own decision: The grants the schools get will total half of the $500,000 many of them had hoped for. What is left would be needed for teacher training. And a chunk of the contract–about $10 million–will go to Voyager Expanded Learning, a Dallas-based for-profit company with connections to Bush.

According to reports in the Dallas Morning News, Bush received generous donations from Voyager’s founder and investors while he was governor, when the company was bidding for a contract to run after-school programs in the Texas schools. In 1998, company founder Randy Best reportedly gave Bush $10,400, while company investors gave another $35,000. And just this March, Bush’s former Texas Education Commissioner, Jim Nelson, took a job at Voyager.

And on top of that, some city educators don’t like the company’s services. “I was unimpressed,” said District 6 Superintendent Jorge Izquierdo. But “now we are being forced to use it,” he said.

The Education Department stands by its decision: “The feds were quite clear, they wanted a single program,” agency spokesman Tom Dunn. “They wanted people to address the reading crisis with one specific set of tools.”

That doesn’t change local educators’ anger: Said Izquierdo to a round of applause at the conference, “If this doesn’t change, there is a feeling among many superintendents that maybe we need to tell the state, ‘No thanks.'”