Monday, June 17, 2013

Newton company to benefit from state budget proviso after ‘Read to Succeed’ initiative not approved

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

The Kansas Legislature this year did not pass Gov. Sam Brownback's reading initiative this year, and that's good news for at least one Kansas business that stands to make a lot of money from what lawmakers did approve instead.

That's because instead of passing the governor's proposal, Republican lawmakers inserted a proviso in this year's budget bill that requires the $12 million that Brownback had proposed using over the next two years be distributed in grants to schools that agree to use one proprietary reading program called Lexia Reading Core5.

In addition, the proviso requires that schools applying for the grants be selected “by a statewide application process supported by Educational Design Solutions,” a company located in Newton, which is also the hometown of Rep. Marc Rhoades, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who personally pushed for the budget amendment.

“It is very unusual, if not unprecedented, for us to earmark a particular company,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and ranking minority member on the Senate budget committee.

Rhoades was unavailable to be interviewed about the budget proviso this week, but he forwarded copies of earlier emails that both he and a company official had written in response to other questions about it.

In one of those, Don Fast, a sales and management representative for the company, denied there were any political or financial ties between EDS and Rep. Rhoades.

“I do not, nor do any of the owners of EDS, have any direct or indirect financial relationship with Rep. Rhoades or his family,” Fast said. “We have not been involved in his campaigns as donors or volunteers.”

Still, Kelly said the procedure was highly unusual for the state of Kansas.

“Ordinarily, if the Legislature wanted to initiate a program, it would appropriate the funding for the program and then the relevant agency would issue (requests for proposals) to companies or entities who bid on the project. So it's the bid process, or RFP process, that's missing from this whole thing.”

Brownback's reading initiative

Brownback unveiled his reading proposal, which he called "Read to Succeed," during his State of the State address in January. It called for a new law requiring that third-grade students be able to pass the state reading assessment for that level before they could advance to fourth grade.

It also called for spending $6 million from the state's Children's Initiative Fund over each of the next two years “to support innovative programs to help struggling readers.”

That proposal sparked sharp criticism from children's advocates who argued that holding students back in third grade over a high-stakes reading test would cause more harm than good. They also complained that funding it through the Children's Initiative Fund required taking resources away from other early-childhood education programs such as Head Start.

The proposal was introduced in the Senate, but was watered down significantly with language ensuring that parents or guardians would be able to override any recommendation that their children be held back.

And when it reached the Senate floor, Kelly succeeded in adding another amendment to make it apply to first-grade pupils instead of third-graders.

“I thought the entire concept was misguided,” Kelly said. But she argued that holding pupils back in first grade would produce less of a social stigma. “Plus, if you want to hit an issue like reading, you need to do that early,” she said.

The bill passed out of the Senate in that form, but it was never considered in the House.

Instead, House Republicans pushed for the budget proviso, which says if the Legislature fails to pass the governor's initiative, the money would be directed to the Lexia reading program by way of EDS.

In addition, the grant program is to be administered through the Department of Children and Families rather than the Kanas State Department of Education.

Effectiveness of Lexia

Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said she was aware that the Lexia program is already being used in some schools around the state, but she said the agency has not done any research to determine whether it is more or less effective than any other proprietary system available to schools.

“We don't know much about the program, other than apparently it's used by some schools in Kansas, but that's a decision made at the local level,” she said. “They're a vendor, and at the state level we don't promote one over another.”

Rhoades indicated in an email that schools using Lexia have been successful in helping get students who are behind in reading skills back up to grade level.

On its own website, Lexia cites several articles in peer-reviewed journals of education and psychology that indicate Lexia is an effective program.

But Kelly said she was skeptical of such data because much of it originates from the company itself.

“It's sort of self-evaluation of the program, Lexia evaluating itself,” Kelly said. “I was not able to obtain any (independent) information about the efficacy of this program in Kansas schools.”