Guest Commentary

What will Arizona get for its $30 million if Al Melvin has his way?

It must be nice to have friends like Al Melvin in the state legislature. You never know when the fiscally conservative senator might throw $30 million your way.

A Utah-based company, Imagine Learning, could be the recipient of Melvin's largesse if the bill he's sponsoring, SB1239, becomes law. It allocates $30 million for one company to provide a computer-based reading program for young children across the state who are reading far below grade level.

What a coup for the lucky company that wins the contract! All that money without having to go school to school and district to district attempting to sell your wares to cash-strapped administrators. It's like winning the lottery.

You'd expect some fierce competition from qualified companies vying for a payday that big. But Melvin tailored the bill's 20-plus specific criteria so only one company qualifies: Imagine Learning.

Melvin has been a fan of Imagine Learning for quite some time. On the 2012 campaign trail, he sang the company's praises whenever education came up. And back in 2010, he and current education Superintendent John Huppenthal sponsored a similar bill (SB1319) that would have given Imagine Learning $12 million for teaching reading to ELL students. It didn't pass, so Melvin is adding $18 million to the pot and trying again.

The question is, why does Melvin want to hand Imagine Learning such a lucrative contract? The answer: the company's impeccable conservative credentials.

Imagine Learning is one of many companies that fund ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, joining the likes of Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and the infamous Koch Brothers. The organization's main function is to bring corporations and conservative legislators together. Most Arizona Republican legislators including Melvin are current or recent members. At yearly ALEC conferences, corporations get a chance to pitch their services and products to people who hold the state purse strings. They also disseminate fill-in-the-blanks Model Legislation lawmakers can take home. (Melvin's bill isn't a piece of Model Legislation so far as I can tell.)

Because of recent bad publicity, a number of corporations have severed ties with ALEC, but not Imagine Learning. It was part of the host committee for the 2012 Annual Conference held in Salt Lake City and sits on ALEC's Education Task Force. If that wasn't enough to put the company in Melvin's political sweet spot, it recently received an award from Parents for Choice in Education, a player in the conservative "education reform" movement which, like Melvin, pushes charter schools and vouchers over traditional public schools.

To be fair, I have to say Imagine Learning's reading program looks like a decent quality product, though you can't tell how good it is from the poorly designed studies on the company website; no self-respecting researcher would take them seriously. But regardless of quality, it's absurd for Al Melvin, sitting in his lofty legislative perch, to dictate how schools teach reading to struggling students. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions in education, and certainly none that will fit the needs of every child who has difficulty reading. Some struggling readers are ELL students who don't know enough English to speak the language fluently, let alone read it well. Others are English speakers who didn't go to preschool. Others are children with brain-related learning disabilities. Will the Imagine Learning program be right for all of them? I doubt it. Rather than putting $30 million behind one reading program, it makes far more sense to allow each school to look at its student population and decide what approach or variety of approaches, to spend the money on.

SB1239 is a hypocritical piece of special interest legislation, especially coming from Senator Melvin. This is a man who helped Arizona cut more from its education funding over the past four years—21 percent—than any other state in the nation, yet he wants to take money our children sorely need for their educations and spend it on a reading program the schools haven't asked for. Our cash-starved schools need that $30 million far more than some Utah company that happens to support Melvin's conservative education agenda.

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