Bill Bennett Hits Funding Jackpot From Ed. Department

Money from a federal program intended to expand public school choice has instead been used to prop up a project by William J. Bennett to boost home schoolers in Arkansas, Education Week has reported.

The education paper reported July 28 in a front-page article that a for-profit firm called K12, Inc., run by former education secretary and “drug czar” Bennett, has received $4.1 million from the U.S. Department of Education. Bennett’s outfit collected the tax funding under a provision in the “No Child Left Behind” education law that is designed to expand options in public school choice.

There’s just one problem: The provision in the education law is supposed to offer options to students enrolled in failing public schools. But critics say Bennett’s company is aimed at helping parents who engage in home schooling and does nothing to benefit students in public schools.

Education Week followed the money trail and determined that Bennett’s group got the cash through a combination of paperwork shuffling and bureaucratic sleight of hand. Education officials in Arkansas simply declared the home-schooled students public school attendees, even though they are not required to spend one day receiving instruction in a public school. The only requirement imposed on the home-schooled kids so far is that they must take a statewide test at their local public school.

Thanks to the federal aid, youngsters taking part in the K12 experiment enjoy computer instruction and step-by-step lesson plans for parents to follow. A certified teacher stands by to offer guidance via telephone.

Bennett’s firm apparently ended up with the tax-funded windfall despite contrary recommendations from peer reviewers at the U.S. Department of Educa­tion. Federal employees who oversee the public school choice program initially suggested funding for 10 programs, basing their decision on recommendations from peer reviewers. Bennett’s K12 Arkansas project was not among them. Education Week reported that K12’s proposal did not score high enough among the peer reviewers to win a funding recommendation.

But the Department of Education bypassed the peer reviewers and added Bennett’s program to the list. In doing so, the department dropped one program entirely and slashed funding for others.

A former Education Department official who oversaw similar grant-making efforts during the presidency of George H.W. Bush said ignoring peer recommendations is very unusual.

“We were very scrupulous about going with the peer reviewers’ recommendations,” said Christopher T. Cross. “I don’t remember ever going against the peer reviewers’ recommendations. It would have been an extraordinary situation for that to occur.”

One department employee involved in the process, who wished to remain anonymous, told Education Week that the decision to award funding to Bennett’s group was obviously motivated by politics.

“Anything with Bill Bennett’s name on it was going to get funded,” the source told the paper.

Bryan W. Flood, a spokesman for K12, defended government funding of the program, calling critics’ objections “splitting hairs” and insisting that subsidizing home schoolers benefits the public.

A staffer at the National Education Association disagreed. “To see money diverted from our public school coffers to support a for-profit company helping parents home-school does not seem like an appropriate use of public money,” said Barbara Stein, a policy analyst at the NEA.

Media attention to the matter marked a re-emergence of sorts for Bennett. The former Education Department head has been keeping a low public profile since reports surfaced in May of 2003 that he has a gambling problem. The stories noted that Bennett may have spent as much as $8 million in casinos over the years. Bennett insisted he has not lost money gambling but promised to stop.

Bennett’s for-profit schooling scheme may reap even more tax aid if voucher subsidy programs spread. He has continued to promote voucher plans since leaving the White House and recently announced that he will oversee content about vouchers for a new conservative group called FreedomWorks. The organization is designed to counter a popular progressive group call MoveOn.