The abuses revealed in federal investigations of the Reading First program are not, as the normally levelheaded U.S. Rep. George Miller of California asserts, the product of a Republican “culture of corruption.” Nor do they spring from a vast business conspiracy, as opponents of privatization would have us believe; an autocratic bureaucrat ideology, as the Bush administration seems inclined to suggest; or an isolated set of circumstances, as all reasonable people hope. The scandal is part of a pervasive pattern in public education today, and is the predictable result of elected officials’ well-intentioned but incomplete approach to school reform legislation.
Since the early 1990s, federal and state government has rightly moved public education in the direction of standards, accountability, and competition. By any reasonable assessment, the programs that schools purchase, not just teachers and the bureaucracy, bear some responsibility for the conditions that led to legislative change. Capped by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the legislative framework political leaders established aims at compelling public schools to purchase new, innovative programs from the private sector. But in the process, policymakers unwittingly took aim at deeply entrenched purchasing relationships involving school districts, federal and state education agencies, large multinational publishing firms, and an expert class of consultants in academia and the think tanks. Elected officials failed to change the rules of that game. Instead, they left the making of their new market to this syndicate.