School for Profit
Education dollars are scarce — except for private companies with lots of pull.
By BETTY BRINK
Last February, Fort Worth school district ethics expert Rufino Mendoza sent acting superintendent Joe Ross a strongly worded memo alleging that one of the district’s most highly touted and powerful employees had committed a serious conflict-of-interest violation.
Marsha Sonnenberg had been in charge of reading and language arts acquisitions for Fort Worth schools since 1998. In the memo, released to Fort Worth Weekly under an open records request, Mendoza wrote that Sonnenberg had recommended that the district buy a reading program produced by a company for which she was a consultant.
“This is in direct violation of Board Policy” that bars any employee with influence over contracts and payments from accepting any benefit from companies or people doing business with the district, Mendoza wrote. “It is most important that our top-level cabinet exemplify what is expected from all ... employees. ... If we are to hold one person accountable for unethical behavior, we must hold all individuals accountable or our entire process is compromised.”
Sonnenberg did not deny doing work for the company called Sopris West Educational Services, which was trying to sell the district its $87,000 reading program for middle-school special education students. According to Mendoza, she admitted that she had played a role in the development of the curriculum, called Language. But she told Mendoza she had not been compensated for what she said were suggestions on how to improve the product. Still, the ethics expert told Ross, “compensation, as you know, doesn’t necessarily mean receipt of money.”
It could mean helping out an old mentor. Sopris executive Louisa Cook Moats, a well-known reading expert and researcher, is listed on Sonnenberg’s resumé as a reference, someone she had “been trained by and worked with.” And a regional Sopris administrator, Closie Ray, formerly worked with Sonnenberg in the Fort Worth district offices, which Mendoza thought might also give the “appearance of impropriety.”
Sonnenberg resigned her $97,900-a-year position at the end of the 2004-2005 school term — a decision she said this week that she’d made before the ethics flap. The Fort Worth district didn’t buy the Sopris program.
Because of the concerns raised by Mendoza, another program purchase pushed by Sonnenberg was also halted. The reading administrator had recommended that the district spend another $84,000 on a curriculum called Passport, also for middle-school special education classes. That one is put together by a company called Voyager Expanded Learning — a company whose contracts with the Fort Worth district alone jumped from $100,300 to more than $620,000 in one year, under Sonnenberg’s direction. And if Sopris has a few friends in somewhat lofty places, it’s not a patch on Voyager, the brainchild of Randy Best, Dallas entrepreneur and big-money backer of George Bush.
Start, again, with Sonnenberg’s resumé. Besides Moats, she lists among her reading-research mentors Reid Lyon and Doug Carnine, both of whom wound up in Washington, D.C., as advisors to Bush and his now-controversial No Child Left Behind act. Lyon and Sonnenberg are believers in phonics and made that method the cornerstone of Bush’s reading initiative.
One of the phonics-based commercial programs Lyon has pushed is Voyager’s — which has gotten him in hot water with critics, in New York and elsewhere, who charge that the administration’s reading initiatives were actually written to support a few commercial programs — programs, perhaps not surprisingly, developed by Bush administration friends.
Sonnenberg, a vivacious, candid woman, told the Weekly that Voyager’s program has succeeded because it is impressive and because it fills an important niche. But not all agree. Its detractors say that Voyager has indeed become a major success story in the annals of educational entrepreneurship, based not on producing a superior product but on its founders’ ability to attract well-funded and well-connected investors and to hire top educators away from public schools that then become its clients, not to mention pouring massive amounts of money into Bush’s campaigns. Its corporate connections reach the White House by the front door.
Along the way, Voyager has been helped by government policy changes like that mandated by the Texas Legislature in 2003, which attached a little-known rider to an appropriations bill to give the Texas Education Agency $12 million to spend on reading — that is, to spend on a single intervention program for struggling readers in kindergarten and elementary schools. All districts had to use the one program chosen by TEA or pay for their own. The TEA’s choice: Voyager.
Some Fort Worth schools were already using the Voyager program at that point, but when the TEA started funding it in 2003, Fort Worth expanded the program district-wide. After all, Sonnenberg said, “It was free” — to schools, if not to taxpayers.
Long time teachers familiar with Voyager, however, were outraged at the TEA decision. “If Voyager were a superior program and reasonably priced, I would not object,” retired public school English teacher Donna Garner said. “However ... it is not a great program, and it certainly has no long-term, longitudinal research conducted by independent researchers which proves that Voyager is better than other reading intervention programs that are less expensive. .... This deal helped Bush’s friends at the expense of the state’s at-risk kids.”
Even Fort Worth’s director of special education wrote in 2003 that she “wasn’t that impressed” with Voyager.
When schools in the state of New York bought Voyager under pressure from Lyon, Big Apple public advocate Betsy Gotbaum blasted the state’s decision as one that chose what was best for a company rather than “what’s best for our children.” After observing it in the Birmingham schools for a year, University of Alabama professor Fran Perkins called Voyager’s curriculum “the best example of the worst reading program for young children” she’d ever seen.
Others see Voyager as part of a larger right-wing push to privatize public education. In the October issue of the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, university researchers Patricia Hinchey and Karen Cadiero-Kaplan wrote that by “putting public funds into private pockets” with its blatant promotion of companies such as Voyager, the Bush administration is setting the stage for a widespread acceptance of for-profit charter schools funded by public money, a threat “not only to public education, but democracy itself.” Ultimately, the authors wrote, the No Child Left Behind initiative is designed to fail, and when it does, public school teachers will be the “scapegoats” and the private sector will become the rescuers.
Retired reading teacher and former Fort Worth school administrator Judith Scott said the highly touted educational reforms in Texas aren’t working and that she is “tired of educators getting a bum rap” for the failures. “You only have to look at the people” who ushered in those reforms, she said, to understand why they have failed. They were politicians, millionaire businessmen or big-time attorney-lobbyists, with no history in education, she pointed out. And Marsha Sonnenberg, the reading expert, “never even had a reading certificate.”
The whole reform movement, Scott said, became “a political football” that gave power and money to Bush supporters and promoted his “phonics-only agenda.”
And in spite of all of the millions that have poured into the district for new reading programs since 1998, reading scores for most Fort Worth students have not improved.
Still, Sonnenberg said, anecdotal evidence from principals and teachers convinced her she had made the right decision when she brought Voyager into the classrooms. “I was told over and over that schools with low-income and low-performing kids were seeing dramatic improvements in their kids’ reading skills.” When asked if there was any hard data to back up her claims, she said no. “I could never get the [district’s] program evaluators, for whatever reason, to do the studies.”
A local journalist who formerly served as education editor of a major daily newspaper doesn’t remember that as a time spent dealing with stories of good and bad teachers, educational achievements, or even school budgets. Instead, she remembers it as a time when her voice, snail, and e-mail boxes were perpetually overflowing with urgent messages from people trying to sell something to schools and students.
Larry Shaw, head of a local teachers union, noted the same trend when he commented a few years ago on the schools’ sale of “branding rights” to private companies, allowing them to put their names on auditoriums, football stadiums, and the like. When a visitor shows up on one of these campuses, Shaw said, “he better not bend over, or a Pepsi-Cola banner might be slapped across his backside.”
Entrepreneurs of every stripe, it seems, have realized in the last decade or so that schools are not just places where scholars and future presidents are made. They are places were fortunes can be made — especially with a few friends in the right places.
In Fort Worth, scandal erupted several years ago after Thomas Tocco, then superintendent of schools, committed more than $15 million to an unproven computer math program owned by one his associates and even went so far as to write glowing letters of endorsement to Congress in order to help the buddy get millions in education grants. Years later, consultants brought in by Ross deemed the program to be “not worth the money.” Too bad. The money had already been spent.
In the years since, the process of turning public schools into branding laboratories (give a kindergartener an Apple and she’s yours for life!), billboards (ads on school buses) proto-markets (soft drink machines in the hallways), and public troughs for private gain seems to have accelerated. The debate over whether to teach phonics isn’t just about how kids learn — it’s about which company’s reading program has the best lobbyists.
By 1994, Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best had made a fortune in investment banking. That year he decided to branch out. He rounded up investors and, with $3.5 million in hand, founded a for-profit company called Voyager Expanded Learning. One of those investors was Charles Miller, a millionaire friend of George Bush. The Texas governor tapped Miller to lead the statewide task force on school reform. Miller was also a friend of Margaret Spellings, another education advisor who would become secretary of education when Bush became president.
Despite its for-profit nature, Voyager’s stated purpose was altruistic: Best wanted to provide after-school programs to latchkey kids. His program was simple. He would use existing school facilities — free of charge if he could convince the school districts that what he was doing was providing tutoring rather than baby-sitting services — and he would offer poorly paid teachers good hourly pay to stay late and tutor the kids using methods that were more fun than studious. The programs offered everything from sculpting to drama, and they were highly successful, branching out across North Texas — until other after-school program providers that had to be regulated by the state cried foul because Voyager had gotten a pass as a “tutoring” service. Best shook off his critics, continued the after-school programs, and took his tutoring service to a higher level: Voyager became a for-profit publisher of reading programs that he sold to the schools as phonic-based intervention programs for at-risk kids.
Voyager Expanded Learning was first used in the Fort Worth schools during the 1997-98 school year at a cost of $59,190. At that time it was an after-school tutoring program aimed at struggling elementary students. For the next seven school years, according to documents released by the district under an open records request, purchase orders for Voyager programs came to a total of about $331,000.
Then in the 2004-2005 school year, Sonnenberg dramatically increased the number of schools using the program, and in just one year Voyager was paid $620,698. A lot of that money came from TEA, but some of it also came from Title I funds and direct federal grants under No Child Left Behind.
TEA’s choice of Voyager, over eight other vendors, as the single-source statewide provider for the $12 million at-risk reading program was highly controversial and fraught with charges of favoritism.
Donna Garner called the decision unconscionable. “This [was] an ‘I smell a rat’ deal,” Garner said. “It is sucking funds away from other school programs, all to put dollars in the pockets of those backers who are behind the company.”
Garner, who monitors TEA regularly, lives near Waco. She’s an unrelenting critic of the state’s current educational standards known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, and is chief author of an alternative standards document that other teachers helped her write in 1997.
Garner and a few reading teachers had been asked to join the large group — mostly administrators and researchers — that had been pulled together by the Bush task force on school reform to write new standards for the state’s schools. Sonnenberg also served on the writing team. Those standards became the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, called TEKS, and the basis for the statewide testing program.
But after a few weeks, Garner said, several of the classroom teachers became convinced that the committee was going to produce standards that were “vague, not knowledge-based, and impossible to understand by teachers or students.” They bolted, put their lives on hold for months, and produced the Texas Alternative Document, a knowledge-based set of standards that were grade-level specific and had real accountability built in, she said. Their document, praised by outside peer reviewers, was ignored by TEA. But while their standards were not accepted by Texas, some portions of the TAD are being used in California and more than a half-dozen other states, she said. “We are well known and respected outside our own borders.” TAD, she said, is not copyrighted, is “free for the taking,” and none of the authors has ever made a dime off it. Sonnenberg, Garner said, “flirted with the TAD group for a time,” but went back to the Bush-supported TEKS group.
Garner has nothing kind to say about the business types like millionaire investor Charles Miller and lawyer-lobbyist Sandy Kress, who headed up Bush’s Texas school reform initiatives and laid the groundwork for what would become the No Child Left Behind act, making that document, in Garner’s eyes, seriously flawed.
“Back in the ’90s when we Texas Alternative Document writers were trying to get the governor’s office to realize the importance of grade-level-specific standards based upon academic knowledge, all [Miller and Kress] could understand was spreadsheets,” Garner said. “These people never did realize that you can’t make students and teachers accountable unless they know to what they are being held accountable.” Now, she said, that same mentality pervades Bush’s national educational initiatives.
As for Voyager’s curriculum and other Bush-backed phonics-based programs, Scott, a former Fort Worth Title I administrator who worked with Sonnenberg, said a one-size-fits-all approach to the teaching of reading is impossible. “Kids learn differently,” she said. “And if you have a child with a hearing problem — and there are many such kids — who can’t distinguish sounds, you’re setting that child up to fail if phonics is your only option.” But the money is in phonics today, she said, and “all of the programs Sonnenberg bought for the district tie back to Bush and federal dollars.”
Sonnenberg said she was “very, very impressed with Voyager’s reading intervention curriculum, and I had no hesitancy recommending it to the district.” She said Voyager sent folks out to talk to teachers and administrators and discovered the need for reading intervention programs that would help bring at-risk children up to speed. “Voyager was one of the first to develop such a program, based on phonics,” she said, which did give the program an advantage in getting the No Child Left Behind nod.
Fort Worth schools trustee Juan Rangel said Sonnenberg “was one of the reading gurus out of a tight circle that started in Austin. She was a master at getting funding out of D.C. for the district’s reading programs. ... Look at her connections.”
One of her long-time Fort Worth co-workers, who asked not to be identified, said that with Sonnenberg gone, the district’s loss politically and financially is “incalculable.”
The conflict of interest concerns that many still believe led to Sonnenberg’s resignation would likely not have been flagged under Thomas Tocco — the former superintendent wasn’t known for his keen concern for ethical issues. Those years were rocked by scandals that ranged from Tocco’s sexual peccadilloes to his blatant promotion of a buddy’s computer math program to a massive internal bidding scam that drained $15 million from a district already bleeding red ink, sending one high-level administrator and a favorite contractor to federal prison. As Rangel described it, a culture of “wink, wink, nod, nod” marked the Tocco regime, and for many, the lines between what was permissible for a public servant and what was not had long been blurred.
But with Ross in the driver’s seat last winter, a new school board president in place, a wholly revamped ethics code, and a search on for a permanent superintendent, the district began working to remove the image of cronyism and corruption that had come to hover over it.
Sonnenberg had been brought in by Tocco as the district’s reading consultant in spite of the fact that her resumé showed that in a long educational career, she had never taught reading. In fact, the only classroom experience she had came in the late ’60s, when she taught history at a junior high school in her hometown of Port Arthur for four years. After that, Sonnenberg climbed the administrative ladder in East Texas schools, winding up in Wharton in 1990 as the assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction. In all those years, she was never in charge of reading programs. The only thing on her resumé alluding to any reading experience are the four reading researchers who she said she “trained [with] and worked with.”
She told the Weekly that her interest in reading developed when she was teaching. “I discovered in the classroom that our children can’t read, and it made me angry,” she said. She began to do her own research, sought out experts in the field, and embarked on a quest “to do something about it.”
By the time she joined Gov. Bush’s reading task force in 1996, she had come to know future presidential advisors Reid Lyon, then the director of reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Doug Carnine, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators at the University of Oregon. Carnine had been an advisor to Bush in Texas on his reading reform initiative which became the model for Reading First.
It was Lyon, when he joined the Bush team in Washington, who began to push for Voyager’s use across the country — including in New York City schools, where his pressure drew public controversy. Lyon strongly criticized the reading intervention program the district was using. He warned that it did not meet the standards of No Child Left Behind and that the district faced losing millions in federal dollars if it didn’t change programs. “It was made clear to state officials ... that if they wanted Reading First money, they needed to use ... a Texas-based company, Voyager Expanded Leaning,” Hinchey and Cadiero-Kaplan wrote in the education journal article last fall.
In a letter strongly opposing the switch, Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate wrote that she could find no published scientific evaluations of Voyager’s curriculum (in spite of the fact that it purports to be a “scientifically based reading” program), but she did find plenty of critics. She cited Alabama professor Perkins’ charge that it was the “worst reading program” for young children she’d ever seen and a survey of Birmingham teachers who criticized it for being “too narrowly focused” and grading “too optimistically.” Gotbaum found similar complaints in other southern states’ districts: Students in Voyager did no better than regular students; teachers disliked the program’s “inflexibility”; it limited creativity, and it was deemed by many to be a waste of money.
In October 2003, Fort Worth’s director of special education, Cynthia Walker, wrote to her department head, Leslie James, that she wasn’t “that impressed” with the Voyager program. The program’s first workbook “goes from nothing to high level awfully quickly [and] the teacher’s guide is not very user friendly,” she said. But, she wrote, “I’m going to defer to Marsha.”
Ann Ware, who evaluates district programs for their effectiveness and cost-benefits, said Fort Worth has made no studies of Voyager to date.
By 1997, Voyager was in 700 schools in 17 states, and Best had lured former Richardson schools superintendent Vernon Johnson away to become president of the company. Johnson had approved the after-school program for several Richardson schools when he was in charge. Same for Dallas superintendent Chad Woolery, who put the program in Dallas schools and wrote an endorsement letter for the company. In 1997 he left the school district to become president of Voyager Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the company that raises scholarship money for kids whose parents can’t afford to pay for the company’s after-school program.
That same year, The Dallas Morning News reported, Voyager added two more public school stars to its roster: Brookhaven College president Walter Bumpus to head its east coast region and Oakland, Calif., schools superintendent Carolyn Getridge to oversee programs in several western states.
Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based watchdog group that tracks the influence of money on politics, reported that Georgia state school superintendent Linda Schrenko went behind the backs of her state board of education in 2001 to award a $1.1 million grant for a Voyager reading program. A month later, top Voyager executives contributed $56,750 to Schrenko’s ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.
In Texas, the company also has close ties to two past commissioners of education, Mike Moses and Jim Nelson. Neither were available for comment. Moses went on to become the superintendent of Dallas public schools, where he expanded the use of the Voyager program and, in the revolving door culture of the education community, hired a former Voyager high-level employee, Carmyn Neeley, as an assistant superintendent.
Nelson, an attorney who took the commissioner’s post following Moses, was lured away by Voyager in 2002 as a vice-president. Nelson’s wife also works for the company. In June 2004 he was hired as superintendent of the Richardson schools, a move that generated controversy and charges of conflicts of interest. Moses had been hired by the district to conduct its superintendent search, and he recommended only one person: Nelson.
“When he was hired, he [Nelson] warned us that conflict of interest questions over Voyager would come up,” said Jeanne Guerra, the Richardson district’s communications director. The district had used the program and was considering it again, she said. “We had a committee of teachers and administrators to look at different reading intervention programs, and they told us that Voyager was the best.” Nelson had nothing to do with the decision, she said.
Best’s most valued political contact, however, was his friend George W. Bush. The Dallas entrepreneur contributed more than $45,000 to Bush’s gubernatorial campaign, according to a report by Texans for Public Justice. At about the same time, the report said, Bush endorsed spending $25 million in state funds on after-school programs. When Bush ran for the presidency, Best was a “pioneer” who raised $100,000 for the campaign. And after the self-anointed education president’s baby, No Child Left Behind, was passed in 2002, Voyager became one of the first programs approved for federal funding under the Reading First initiative that was part of the program.
Best just couldn’t go wrong with Voyager. In February he sold his cash cow to ProQuest, Inc., the new name of century-old Bell & Howell, for more than $340 million. He promised his investors in 1994, the Morning News reported then, that in 10 years their investments would pay off. He was off by only one year.
ProQuest/Voyager spokesman Chris Cook said that, in spite of its critics, Voyager has a proven track record of success, with a 98 percent renewal rate from districts over a five-year period. “School districts don’t continue to purchase programs that don’t work,” Cook said. In any event, he added, “This is an entirely new program under ProQuest. Mr. Best is no longer involved.”
And now Best is embarking on another educational voyage, Sonnenberg said — an on-line university that will offer continuing education courses for teachers. And again he’s adding to his trophy case of top educators to help him launch the new venture. Reid Lyon, the Bush reading czar, recently left a lifetime in the public sector to become a senior vice president of research and evaluation for Best. And Sonnenberg, who keeps up with her old friend, said that he has also hired Rod Paige, former secretary of education for Bush, and Mike Moses.
Sonnenberg said this week that she believes she never had an ethical conflict with Sopris, though she served on the company’s advisory board. “I worked for free, and there was no conflict of interest, as I understand the term,” she said. She recommended the company’s Language program, she said, “because I knew and respected the professionals at Sopris who developed it.” She was “shocked” when the conflict charge came up, she said. The issue had nothing to do with her departure and caused “no damage to my reputation,” she said. She is now working as a freelance reading consultant with clients ranging from the Department of Education to small school districts to commercial educational-product companies. She declined to name those clients, but she said she stays in close contact with Randy Best, who calls her frequently to ask her advice.
Mike Sorum, the new chief academic officer for the district, said he doesn’t know why Sonnenberg resigned but he did say that, in spite of her long history with the district’s reading programs, she would not be coming back as a consultant under new superintendent Melody Johnson.
Mendoza, however, said the district is left with what he called “critical questions” about the integrity of the purchasing process itself: Do purchases of the district’s reading products go through the usual competitive process? And more importantly, does a textbook committee recommend the products?
And if they are paying even minimal attention, educators and parents also still have questions, about why this country’s children continue to be such poor readers. Five years into the 21st century, about 40 percent of American children were not proficient readers — that is, able to read fluently, comprehend, and retain knowledge. In Texas that figure is an abysmal 77 percent. Those figures are not from state reading tests such as the TAKS. They come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an independent arm of the Department of Education that takes the pulse of the nation’s schools each year and looks at trends every five years. Its recent findings indicate that U.S. schools show little “significant difference” in the performance of kids in the early grades since 1992 and literally no differences in the math and reading scores of 17-year-olds over the past 34 years.
Rangel, the Fort Worth trustee, is dismayed that so many children still do not read with proficiency. “Reading is the heart of all learning. If that heart isn’t pumping, you can forget everything else. Too many kids in this district,” he said, whether they are white, black, or brown, “are not being taught to read at a level that will give them the tools they need for college, for a profession, and for an enjoyable, well-rounded life.”
And in spite of a plethora of reading programs, the district’s reading scores on the state’s 2004-2005 TAKS still remain lower than the state average at every grade level. This year’s third-graders did better than any other grade, passing at a rate of 85 percent, still below the state average of 89 percent. But beyond third grade, reading scores dropped significantly — to 65 percent for fifth-graders.
What those scores tell him, Rangel said, is that there are probably too many reading programs. “The child is lost in a maze of programs that are totally different from grade to grade. They come from different vendors that aren’t compatible with each other. The kids are confused. But they are not stupid. Our kids are smart. They can learn, if we simply use common sense and give them continuity. Same thing for our teachers. We have great teachers, but we have to give them the resources to teach with.”
“That’s exactly the question I’m asking,” said Sorum. “Do we have too many reading programs, are they compatible, and if not, what do we do about it?” Sorum said he and Superintendent Johnson are taking a critical look at the “multiple programs,” especially from the student’s perspective. “It’s very confusing for them.” The third-grade readers are doing well, he said. The district now needs to build on that success with a curriculum document that has continuity. “That’s the major reason I was hired — to work on this,” he said. “We’re definitely moving toward more cohesiveness.” And teachers will be brought in to the decision-making process: “They know better than I do what they need.”
The fact that this district still has so many poor readers can be laid at the feet of Tocco, Rangel said, because the former superintendent thought that throwing money at a problem would fix it. “He bought every [reading program] there was. And kept buying and buying. He was not a classroom teacher, and he never did understand what is needed in a classroom.
“It’s not scripted reading programs or computer math programs” that are needed, he said. “It’s good teachers with good tools.”
You can reach Betty Brink at email@example.com.
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