by David Safier
I've been posting about Al Melvin's bill, SB1239, which would appropriate $30 million to a "research-based, technology-based provider" for a reading program designed to help K-3 students whose reading skills are far below grade level. Melvin wrote explicit criteria into the bill which only fit one company, Utah's Imagine Learning. The bill's language matches up beautifully with the language and details on the company website.
Why did Melvin focus his bill on Imagine Learning? One reason is, the company is right in his conservative wheelhouse. It's a high level funder of ALEC and sits on ALEC's Education Task Force. It's also connected with the conservative "school choice" movement. So Melvin would have had plenty of opportunities to talk with company representatives, and he would have liked what he heard.
Melvin's bill would create a statewide license for Imagine Learning products, meaning that school districts could use them without dipping into their own limited resources. It's a great deal for Imagine Learning, which can rake in up to $30 million just by convincing a few legislators to give the company a state license. No time consuming, costly sales pitches to individual schools and school districts which would have to consider whether the products are effective before investing in them. It's a statewide, one-stop sales pitch, and the chosen sponsor, Al Melvin, would be far more interested in the cut of your conservative jib than the effectiveness of your educational product.
Imagine Learning did this once before, in its home state of Utah, where it managed to get a state license for its products in 2010. I can't find details about how much Utah spent on the reading programs, but according to the Utah Education Issues blog, Imagine Learning spent a good chunk of money in campaign contributions to grease the skids — about $12,000 in 2009, spread out among a number of conservative legislators, including the Chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee and a key member of the Senate Education Committee.
(As an interesting side note, something similar happened in Utah in 2008 when a million dollar state license was allotted for a reading program created by the Waterford Institute. As with the Melvin bill, the Utah legislation put out a Request of Proposals (RFP) with such specific language, it could only apply to Waterford. The Waterford program was created by a team headed by Susan Preator. In 2002, Preator retired from Waterford and created Imagine Learning. The Preator connection between the two companies and the granting of state licenses has to be more than coincidental.)
I'm not knowledgable enough to say if Imagine Learning puts out a good product. I'm a retired high school English teacher with no expertise in reading instruction for grades K-3. But I doubt Melvin has greater expertise than I. In Arizona's cash-starved state budget where people like Melvin talk about pinching every possible penny, it makes no sense for him to spend $30 million on a reading program instead of giving schools the opportunity to choose between a number of educational strategies to help their young, struggling readers.