Neil Bush's firm gets education act funds

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- A company led by President Bush's brother and partly owned by his parents is benefiting from Republican connections and federal money targeted for economically disadvantaged students under the No Child Left Behind Act.

With investments from his parents, George and Barbara Bush, and other backers, Neil Bush's company, Ignite Learning, has placed its products in 40 U.S. school districts and plans to market internationally.

At least 13 U.S. school districts have used federal funds available through the president's signature education program, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, to buy Ignite's portable learning centers at $3,800 apiece.

The law provides federal funds to help school districts better serve disadvantaged students and improve their performance, especially in reading and math.

But Ignite does not offer reading instruction, and its math program is not available until next year.

The federal Department of Education does not monitor individual school district expenditures under the education program but sets guidelines the states are expected to enforce, said spokesman Chad Colby.

Referring to schools' using the program's money for the Ignite purchases, Ignite executive Tom Deliganis said, "Some districts seem to feel OK, and others do not."

Neil Bush said in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times that Ignite's program had demonstrated success in improving the test scores of economically disadvantaged children. He also said political influence had not played a role in Ignite's rapid growth. "As our business matures in the USA we have plans to expand overseas and to work with many distinguished individuals in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa," he wrote. "Not one of these associates by the way has ever asked for any access to either of my political brothers, not one White House tour, not one autographed photo, and not one Lincoln bedroom overnight stay."

Interviews and a review of school district documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act found that educators and legal experts were sharply divided over whether Ignite's products were worth their cost or qualified under the education law.

The federal law requires schools to show that they are meeting educational standards or risk losing critical funding. If students fail to meet annual performance goals in reading and math tests, schools must supplement their educational offerings with tutoring and other programs.

Leigh Manasevit, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in federal education funding, said that districts using the No Child funds to buy products such as Ignite's would have to meet "very strict" student eligibility requirements and ensure that the Ignite services were supplemental to existing programs.

Known as COW, for Curriculum on Wheels, Ignite's product line is geared toward middle school social studies, history and science. The company says it has developed a social studies program that meets state curriculum requirements in seven states. Its science program meets requirements in six states.

Most of Ignite's business has been obtained through sole-source contracts without competitive bidding. Neil Bush has been directly involved in marketing the product.

In addition to federal or state funds, foundations and corporations have helped buy Ignite products. The Washington Times Foundation, backed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the South Korea-based Unification Church, has peppered classrooms throughout Virginia with Ignite's COWs under a $1 million grant.

Oil companies and Middle East interests with long political ties to the Bush family have made similar bequests. Aramco Services Co., an arm of the Saudi-owned oil company, has donated COWs to schools, as have Apache Corp., BP and Shell Oil.

Neil Bush said he is a businessman who does not attempt to exert political influence, and he called the Los Angeles Times' inquiries about his venture - made just before the election - "entirely political."

Bush's parents joined Neil Bush as Ignite investors in 1999, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents. By 2003, the records show, Neil Bush had raised about $23 million from more than a dozen outside investors, including Mohammed Al Saddah, the head of a Kuwaiti company, and Winston Wong, the head of a Chinese computer company.

Barbara Bush has enthusiastically supported Ignite. At an Oklahoma City fundraiser in January 2004, she and Neil Bush were guests of honor at the $1,000-a-table event organized by a foundation supporting the Western Heights School District. Proceeds were earmarked for the purchase of Ignite products.

Organizer Mary Blankenship Pointer said she planned the event because district students were "utilizing Ignite courseware and experiencing great results. Our students were thriving."

But Western Heights Superintendent Joe Kitchens said the district dropped its use of Ignite because it disagreed with changes Ignite had made in its products.

The former first lady spurred controversy recently when she contributed to a Hurricane Katrina relief foundation for storm victims who had relocated to Texas.

Her donation carried one stipulation: It had to be used by local schools for purchases of COWs.

Texas accounts for 75 percent of Ignite's business, which is expanding rapidly in other states, Deliganis said.

The company also has COWs deployed in North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, California, the District of Columbia, Georgia and Florida, he said.

Neil Bush said Ignite had more than 1,700 COWs in classrooms.

But Ignite's educational strategy has changed drastically, and some are critical of its new approach. Shortly after Ignite was formed in Austin, Texas, in 1999, it bought the software developed by another small Austin company, Adaptive Learning Technology.

Adaptive Learning's founder, Mary Schenck-Ross, said the software's interactive lessons enabled teachers "to get away from the mass-treatment approach" to education. When a student typed in a response to a question, the software was designed to react and provide a customized learning path.

"The original concept was to avoid 'one size fits all.' That was the point," said Catherine Malloy, who worked on the software development.

Two years ago, however, Ignite dropped the individualized learning approach. Working with artists and illustrators, it created a large purple COW that could be wheeled from classroom to classroom and plugged in, offering lessons that could be played to a roomful of students.

The developers of Adaptive Learning's software complain that Ignite replaced individualized instruction with a gimmick.

"It breaks my heart what they have done. The concept was totally perverted," Schenck-Ross said.

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

But some people in Houston's schools question the expenditures. 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.

Walter F. Roche Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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