"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mother Jones On Randy Best, Reading First, and Education Profiteering

A really nice piece that offers the case of Bush Pioneer, Randy Best, as the quintessential education profiteer among an illustrious collection of slime bag snakeoil salesmen and ideological pitch men and women. Among the cast: M. Spellings and Charles Miller. Here is a small clip:

. . . . launched in 1994, Voyager was Best's first foray into the business of education. After three decades of making money the old-fashioned way, the serial entrepreneur says he caught the philanthropy bug. He launched Voyager as a nonprofit that offered after-school programs as a way to keep latchkey kids engaged in learning. Yet after two years of sluggish growth, he switched to a for-profit model and hired school superintendents from Dallas and a nearby suburb to pitch the program to their former colleagues. Business picked up, and Best became a believer in a market-driven approach to social problems. "If you become a for-profit, then every single person in the organization is incentivized to do what you are trying to do," he explains. "Their rational self-interest is at stake; it is not just always trying to do something for the greater good."

Voyager enjoyed an enviably cozy relationship with its customers. After Texas' education commissioner intervened to help the company dodge child care regulations, competitors complained that it had cashed in on its connections. In 1998, Best and his investors donated more than $45,000 to Bush's gubernatorial reelection campaign. (Best says they supported Bush "because he was billing himself as the education governor," not because they expected anything in return.) That August, Bush dropped in on a Houston elementary school and spoke in front of a Voyager banner. Touting the benefits of for-profit after-school programs, he called for $25 million to fund them across the state.

Voyager's friends in high places were not enough to make it profitable. But by staying close to Bush and his allies, Best learned of new, bigger opportunities. In the mid-'90s, Charles Miller, a Voyager investor and Bush campaign donor, worked with the governor's office to design a new state reading program, the Texas Reading Initiative. Miller's team—"this small little mafia," as he puts it—included Bush's adviser Margaret Spellings and several others who would go on to occupy key positions in Bush's Department of Education in Washington. By 1998, Best had reinvented Voyager as a reading program, hiring researchers who'd worked on the Texas Reading Initiative or had ties to its designers.

Best says the idea for the new direction came from his own experience as a dyslexic and his interest in cutting-edge literacy research. "I think Voyager copied from a lot of the things we did with our reading initiative," Miller says. "Voyager saw that and just got in the draft, so to speak."

In 2000, Best and Miller signed up as Bush Pioneers, pledging to raise at least $100,000 for the governor's presidential run. When Bush entered the Oval Office, his education team included several people with connections to Voyager—and some who went on to work for Best. They set out to implement a revolutionary new policy that, despite the talk of smaller government, essentially put Washington in charge of setting state education standards. Miller helped select former Houston schools superintendent Rod Paige, a longtime Voyager booster, as secretary of education. Bush made G. Reid Lyon, a reading researcher who had consulted on the Texas Reading Initiative, his unofficial reading czar. Lyon cowrote the section of No Child Left Behind that created Reading First, a $6 billion program to fund state literacy curricula that drew upon "scientifically based reading research"—exactly what Voyager had been selling back in Texas. . . .

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