FIXING D.C.'S SCHOOLS Lessons in Spending
A Reading Program's Powerful Patron
Thursday, December 20, 2007
When Congress decided to appropriate $2 million in fall 2001 to help D.C. kindergartners and first-graders learn to read, city school officials were told that the money could be spent only on the Voyager Expanded Learning literacy program, a new product with virtually no track record. They had just picked a different reading curriculum, and "we didn't want to be guinea pigs," recalled Mary Gill, then the system's chief academic officer.
School leaders did not know that the $2 million was an earmark that had been guided into law by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) just after she had received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions at a fundraiser held by Voyager's founder and chairman.
Landrieu's earmark illustrates the unusual role that Congress has played in shaping the District's troubled school system. No other school budget is subject to approval by Capitol Hill. None is so susceptible to the whims and policy prescriptions of federal lawmakers. And the parents, teachers and administrators of D.C. schools are the only ones in the country who lack a voting representative in Congress.
The Voyager story also highlights the haphazard way that curricula end up in the District's classrooms. For many years, educators have said that the patchwork of instructional material is one reason the city's students hover near the bottom of rankings in national test scores.
Landrieu, as the ranking Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate's D.C. appropriations subcommittee until early this year, was a pivotal figure in school spending and policy issues. With the Voyager earmark, she intruded on a curriculum decision normally made by teachers, principals, administrators and educational advisers.
"It is unclear to me why Congress thinks they're qualified to do that," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit group based in the District. He said he thought the earmark was "a bad idea" because it added to the "overall fractured nature of the system."
D.C. schools have long been subjected to experimental curricula, piling "one program on top of another for so many years that one cannot tell what the system is trying to do academically or why," said a report commissioned by Casserly's group four years ago.
Landrieu declined requests for an interview, but in a statement to The Washington Post this month, she said she has "long championed new approaches to improving children's education, leading the push for smarter public-private partnerships and for innovative programs like Voyager."
Landrieu has received about $80,000 from Voyager employees and lobbyists, Federal Election Commission records show. "It is not uncommon for Members of Congress to receive contributions from individuals who support their policy goals," she said in the statement to The Post, echoing a similar response she gave Education Week last year for a story on Voyager's political connections.
Voyager employed lobbyists and made political contacts to obtain at least 14 earmarks over five years, worth more than $8 million, according to a review of congressional records. Some went to other parts of the country, but most -- $5.23 million -- went to D.C. schools.
Randy Best, a founder of Voyager who has close ties to the Bush administration, said that "no fundraiser was ever tied to any legislation" of Landrieu's.
The political networking, he said, "gives you access to tell your story," he said. "I think we had a compelling story."