By Nick Juliano
An independent watchdog agency has asked the Department of Education to investigate why President Bush’s younger brother, Neil, has received money earmarked for the president’s signature education initiative to sell a curriculum program that has not been subjected to the rigorous evaluation it deserves.
Neil Bush, 52, who has no background in education, founded Ignite! Learning in 1999 with donations from his parents and a slate of international business interests. The company produces “Curriculum on Wheels” devices — computer/projectors that are pre-loaded with software aimed at preparing students for standardized tests that are the central tenet of the president’s No Child Left Behind law.
The “COWs” are sold to school districts at a cost of $3,800 to $4,200, although they have not been subjected to peer-reviewed scientific studies, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW says nearly $1 million has been spent on the systems in 16 school districts, mostly in Texas, where George W. Bush served as governor before his election in 2000, and Florida, where brother Jeb Bush is governor.
The watchdog group is requesting an investigation from the Education Department’s inspector general, alleging that the Ignite! systems do not meet the standards laid out by Congress dictating how NCLB funds can be spent.
“It is astonishing that taxpayer dollars are being spent on unproven educational products to the financial benefit of the president’s brother,” Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, said in a news release. “The IG should investigate whether children’s educations are being sacrificed so that Neil Bush can rake in federal funds.”
Neil Bush first attracted public scrutiny for his role in the Savings and Loan scandals of the late 1980s when a Colorado S&L on whose board he served failed. The scandal cost taxpayers $1.6 billion.
Some school districts identified by CREW spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money on the mobile projectors, which include curriculum for math, science or social studies. In addition to their baseline cost — $3,800 for a single-subject COW or $4,200 for one covering all three subjects — the units impose on schools a $1,000 annual licensing and upkeep fee, CREW says. Schools also have the option of purchasing lifetime contracts for $6,800, according to the New York Times.
Although there’s no direct evidence of presidential nepotism on behalf of his baby brother, Neil Bush did benefit from his mother’s largesse in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year. Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to a hurricane relief fund overseen by former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and earmarked part of those funds for purchases of Ignite! software.
In an interview earlier this year with the New York Times, Neil Bush denied using his brother’s position to push his product. He claimed he was inspired to start the company after struggling with dyslexia while he was in school.
Ignite’s Web site includes anecdotal testimonials from teachers who have used the program. But some teachers are less than impressed with the system, saying it supplants rote memorization for critical thinking skills.
“As a review, it uses catchy phrases and tunes,” Jeremy Siefker, a middle school science teacher who’s used the program, told the Times, “but as far as scientific investigation and inquiry, I don’t think it’s very good.”
Ironically, among the schools that have shunned the program is a Texas elementary school named for Neil Bush’s father.
“After reviewing the program, Bush is not interested,” Jill Arthur, principal of George H. W. Bush Elementary in Midland, TX, wrote in an e-mail to Ignite! obtained by CREW. “We feel our money is best spent elsewhere.”