Sunday, April 06, 2008

Neil Bush: Igniting an Investigation

Prologue:

To understand why Neil Bush's educational firm is under investigation is only a provincial part of the story of the alleged misuse of NCLB funds.

The larger scope of scandal is not so much global as a surgical subversion of the American system of education by foreign interests who may be seeking to institutionalize a curriculum to undermine democracy in this country. If 9/11 demonstrated the kind of physical threat a hostile outside agent could muster then imagine the potential to disrupt this country's ability to instill trust in law, government, and to revitalize its workforce in maintaining a strong, free-thinking society.

And, like 9/11, by tricking the existing system into financing and implementing the scheme is the well-known irony of the original tragedy.

An outside enemy need not be particularly ingenious to imagine just such a scheme. From afar, the purchase of curriculum materials is often dictated by the buying decisions of the largest state consumers, say, Texas. That same outside agent would need to simply control Texas' most influential political agent. Conveniently that agent might also wholly control the nation's education laws, practice, and funding.

Own Texas' local power broker and in time that outside agent can PWN the curriculum of the planet's strongest democracy.

What would it take to accomplish a speculative feat as just described. The foreign interest might have no interest in the American dollar as that interest might see the currency as worthless wallpaper. So "investing" in a certain American's provincial special interests would be one way of achieving a degree of control.

Another might be to compromise the integrity of that local agent assuming that integrity existed in the first place.

Let's put this narrative aside to look at actual facts to see if any of this might be a concern.

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In early November of 2007, a watchdog consumer group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked John P. Higgins Jr., the inspector general of the Department of education to investigate whether or not $1M of No Child Left Behind Funding was inappropriately used to purchase Ignite, Inc's product suite. The issue being that NCLB funding requires stringent compliance to certain educational criteria that this group believes is not being met.

A New York Times report by Marilyn Thompson documents the event:
The citizens' group obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request showing that the Katy Independent School District west of Houston used $250,000 in state and federal Hurricane Katrina relief money last year to buy the Curriculum on Wheels.

The district's director of special education, Fred Shafer, supported the purchases, telling other officials that "all the kids love the Cow, and it really meets the needs of the students with disabilities," according to an internal e-mail message obtained by the citizens' group. Mr. Shafer did not return calls for comment.

Neil Bush has assertively marketed the Cow and, according to the company, the product has been placed in 22 states. This summer, Ignite announced plans to expand into China.

The citizens' group says it has documented only a small part of the federal money spent on Ignite products. Ignite has had strong support from districts in Texas, President Bush's home state. This week, the Houston Independent School District is set to consider whether to authorize schools to spend an additional $300,000 from various financing sources on the Curriculum on Wheels.

Jay Spuck, a former curriculum director for the district, has criticized spending on the Ignite product, saying: "It's not helping kids at all. It's not helping teachers. The only way Neil has gotten in is by his name."

Much of the product's success in Texas dates from a March 2006 donation by Barbara Bush, who gave eight units to schools attended by large numbers of hurricane evacuees.

Neil Bush followed up with an e-mail message telling the district that "in order for the schools to keep the Cows in subsequent years they will have to pay an annual fee of $1,000," according to documents obtained by the citizens group.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the group, referring to No Child Left Behind, said: "A constant principle of N.C.L.B. is that children must be taught using scientifically proven methods. Ignite's Cows simply don't meet N.C.L.B. standards. This suggests that the real reason N.C.L.B. funds are expended on Ignite is because the founder and C.E.O. is the president's brother."

The cost for each COW unit is approximately $4,200 and a simple calculation of Barbara Bush's "donation" (see below) comes out to $33,600. This means that the Texas school district spent an additional $226,400 on additional units.

The accusation that the units were sold on influence peddling by Neil and Barbara Bush is an obvious suspicion and it is repeated in both liberal and conservative publications reporting on this event. The Bush's largely attribute such criticism to jealousy and celebrity sniping on the part of critics. The fact that their family is self-insulated from oversight or accountability is an unspoken subtext.

The content of a Walter F. Roche, Jr. article in the LA Times has become mysteriously inaccessible on the LA Times site. However this important documentation was found preserved here.
In Houston, where Neil Bush and his parents live, the district has used various funding sources to acquire $400,000 in Ignite products. An
additional $240,000 in purchases has been authorized in the last six months.

Correspondence obtained by The Times shows that Neil Bush met with top Houston officials, sent e-mails and left voice mail messages urging bigger and faster allocations. An e-mail from a school procurement official to colleagues said Bush had made it clear that he had a "good working relationship" with a school board member.
Another Ignite official asked a Texas state education official to endorse the company. In an e-mail, Neil Bush's partner Ken Leonard asked Michelle Ungurait, state director of social studies programs, to tell Houston officials her "positive impressions of our content, system and approach."

Ungurait, identified in another Leonard e-mail as "our good friend" at the state office, told her superiors in response to The Times' inquiry that she never acted on Leonard's request. Leonard said he did not ask Ungurait to do anything that would be improper.

Houston school officials gave Ignite's products "high" ratings in eight categories and recommended approval.

Some in Houston's schools question the expenditures, however. Jon Dansby was teaching at Houston's Fleming Middle School when Ignite products arrived. "You can't even get basics like paper and scissors, and we went out and bought them. I just see red," he said.

In Las Vegas, the schools have approved more than $300,000 in Ignite purchases. Records show the board recommended spending $150,000 in No Child funding on Ignite products.

Sources familiar with the Las Vegas purchases said pressure to buy Ignite products came from Sig Rogich, an influential local figure and prominent Republican whose fundraising of more than $200,000 for President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign qualified him as a "Bush Ranger."

Rogich, who chairs a foundation that supports local schools, said he applied no pressure but became interested in COWs after Neil Bush contacted him. Rogich donated $6,000 to purchase two COWs for a middle school named after him.

Christy Falba, the former Clark County school official who oversaw the contracts, said she and her husband attended a dinner with Neil Bush to discuss the products. She said Rogich encouraged the district "to look at the Ignite program" but applied no pressure.
You'll notice that Houston alone has spent at least $640,000 on the devices and that coverage of the expense for this product is repeatedly under-reported as a result of the piecemeal purchasing audit trail.

You'll also notice that unquestionably NCLB funds (your tax dollars) are being funneled into Bush coffers. The question of whether or not the practice is legal is the contention.

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"Donation" Money

As you read previously most of the media both left and right described Barbara Bush's donation as a private act of charity.

Amy Goodman's interview of Joe DeRose sets up the context of the donation;
AMY GOODMAN: Joe DeRose, on a side note, I remember when the President’s mother, the former First Lady, Barbara Bush, went to visit the Katrina survivors in the Houston Astrodome, and she promised to make a contribution to charity. I’m looking at the Houston Chronicle, the piece that wrote about that and said, “Katrina funds earmarked to pay for Neil Bush’s software program. Former First Lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund with specific instructions that the money be spent with an educational software company owned by her son Neil. Since then, the Ignite learning program has been given to eight area schools that took in substantial numbers of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.” That was in Houston. Do you know more about that? At the time, we didn’t know that she was saying that her charitable contribution would go to pay for her son’s educational software.

JOE DeROSE: No, I don’t know anything about that. But I think the point is that that really needs to be looked at very hard, is that a lot of money has been allocated, maybe not enough, but certainly billons of dollars have already been allocated by the federal government, and I think it’s pretty important to look at where that money is being spent.
But Barbara Bush's earmarked donation is the tip of an iceburg. The diversion of charitable donations toward the Bush's product includes this 2006 tidbit from the Houston Chronicle:
Two years ago, the school district raised eyebrows when it expanded the program by relying heavily on private donations.

In February 2004, the Houston school board unanimously agreed to accept $115,000 in charitable donations from businesses and individuals who insisted the money be spent on Ignite. The money covered half the bill for the software, which cost $10,000 per school.

The deal raised conflict of interest concerns because Neil Bush and company officials helped solicit the donations for the HISD Foundation, a philanthropic group that raises money for the district.
Quid pro quo tax-deductible political contributions in the form of charitable donations? As the Borat character might say, "NICE!"

Previous: Neil Bush, The UnTold Story - Preface

Next - Neil Bush and the Origin of Ignite!, Inc.

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