State Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, helped get a $12 million contract for a local company, Educational Design Solutions, to sell its educational program to Kansas schools.
Was he doing some pork-barrel politics, or was he looking for a solution to a problem?
The product is Lexia, a computer program that helps students learn to read. Several schools in Kansas already use the program, and it is used in Newton schools, Newton superintendent Deb Hamm said.
Near the end of the just-completed legislative session, Rhoades, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, set aside the money for a two-year deal for a grant giving schools more access to the program.
Design Solutions is co-owned by Don Fast of Newton. He is a former teacher with Newton schools, and there are other former Newton teachers working for or with the company.
According to a story by the Kansas Health Institute, Fast did not reveal the other owners of the company, but said he had no business or political relationship with Rhoades.
Rhoades said Fast visited him during the session and they discussed the program. At the time Gov. Sam Brownback had a program in mind that he was promoting, so Rhoades said he was not all that interested in Lexia.
But later, when it became clear the governor's plan was not going to go through, Rhoades said he "thought it would be good to have some kind of reading program available to Kansas kids."
Rhoades told the Kansan, "I don't care where a company is owned as long as it has real lasting results for our Kansas school kids.
It's a complete coincidence that EDS (the Kansas partner with Lexia) is out of Newton. Lexia already is in 150 Kansas elementary schools in Kansas with amazing results. It made sense to try and get a program in place that provides real-time data of our Kansas kids' reading abilities, for our educators and our Legislators who allocate the money for this kind of thing."
Rhoades said the grant creates a pilot program that schools may use, but they are not required to do so.
Still, the move has drawn some criticism from other politicians and education officials.
“You can’t overlook the results of Kansas schools using Lexia,” Rhoades told KHI News Service. “My only interest is real results for students.”
It is unusual for a budget bill to earmark a state expenditure for a specific company or product. There were no legislative hearings held on the merits of the proviso or the Lexia product prior to its approval.
Instead, Rhoades presented the proviso during conference committee negotiations when there were dozens of other bargaining items on the table and legislative tensions were at or near their peak. Senate negotiators acquiesced to the House budget plan largely as part of a bigger effort to bring the drawn-out session to a close.
Most state purchases of more than $5,000 are subject to an open and competitive bidding process, but legislators can circumvent that.
“Kansas procurement law does allow for sole source purchases under certain circumstances,” said Chuck Knapp, director of operations and public affairs at the Kansas Department of Administration.
“The Kansas Legislature has the authority to create additional exceptions, exemptions and modifications to existing law,” Knapp said when asked if state policy would allow fulfillment of the Lexia proviso.
Some Kansas school districts, including Wichita’s, the state’s largest, already use Lexia and officials there said it has been helpful to teachers and effective for students. They plan to expand its use.
“This past year was our first full year of Lexia implementation,” said Susan Arensman, a spokesperson for Wichita USD 259. “We expect much greater usage next year.”
Arensman said the district has a three-year, $1.5 million contract with Fast’s company. The district’s license with the firm allows 3,000 students to use the Lexia software at any one time. She said about 10,000 Wichita students used the program last year.
According to the website of the Lexia parent company, the software uses animation, sound effects and well-crafted scripts to pique youngsters’ interest in exercises that help them work on whatever issues may be keeping them from reading at grade level. The software also provides teachers with “real-time reports” on each student’s progress as well as a “data-driven action plans” for addressing deficiencies.
The Lexia software has its supporters but the budget proviso that would expand its use in Kansas schools has drawn questions and criticisms:
From literacy experts here and in other states who doubt the program’s effectiveness compared to other methods.
From the state’s leading children’s advocacy group and from legislators upset or concerned about the process by which the funding was diverted from other children’s literacy programs.
And from Lexia competitors who said they would have liked the opportunity to bid on the state’s business.
Dave Ranney of the Kansas Health Institute News Service contributed to this report