The government contractor that set up a billion-dollar-a-year federal reading program for the Education Department and failed, according to the department's inspector general, to keep it free of conflicts of interest is one of the companies now evaluating the program.
Reading First, part of President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education law, provides intense reading help to low-income children in the early elementary grades. RMC Research Corp. was hired to establish and implement the program starting in 2002, under three contracts worth about $40 million.
Recently, the Education Department's inspector general reported that RMC failed to keep the program free of conflicts of interest. For example, RMC did not screen subcontractors for relationships with publishers of reading programs.
Now, Reading First is in the midst of a congressionally mandated evaluation under a 2003 contract with a team that includes RMC, based in Portsmouth, N.H.
Lawmakers who have been investigating the Reading First program criticized the connection.
"If it's true that RMC was also hired to evaluate the effectiveness of the very program it was hired to help implement, then the conflict of interest could not be any clearer," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, said Friday.
"It's a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who chairs the Senate education committee.
The inspector general found that federal officials intervened to influence state and local decisions about reading programs, a potential violation of the law.
RMC did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did Abt Associates, a contractor based in Cambridge, Mass., that hired RMC as a subcontractor.