Education software law written by software vendor raises questions

2014-03-08T00:00:00Z 2014-07-24T15:10:17Z Education software law written by software vendor raises questionsBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX — State lawmakers are moving to require the state to buy computer programs for English learners with specifications that were written by a company selling the software.

Lobbyist Warde Nichols acknowledged that HB 2485 came from Imagine Learning, a Utah-based firm whose specialties include programs to help “English-language learners,” students who come to school speaking another language and who are not proficient in English.

Imagine Learning even paid for a group of Arizona lawmakers to visit its Utah offices and Utah schools last fall where the company already has sold its product.

The legislation, given House preliminary approval last week and awaiting a final roll-call vote, is specific on what has to be in the software.

Terminology in the bill in large measure tracks the company’s publicity literature and website.

For example, it requires not only immediate feedback for students but “must provide scaffolding through illustrations, front-loaded vocabulary, audio support, interactive glossary words, instruction feedback, strategic questions and adaptive content that provides extra practice as needed.”

And it mandates that there be individualized instruction on the “five strands of literacy” — phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency.

Nichols, a former Republican legislator, acknowledged there’s a reason for the specifics.

“Those have been proven products in the Utah model that have gotten them the results,” he said, the model Imagine Learning sold to lawmakers in that state.

But Nichols insisted the requirement for the state to buy “technology-based language development and literacy intervention software” is not written so that only Imagine Learning can bid on it.

That’s also the position of House Majority Whip Rick Gray, R-Glendale, one of the legislators who went to Utah and is the prime sponsor of the legislation.

“I have talked with other lobbyists for other software vendors,” Gray said, telling them he is willing to make changes in the bid specifications. “It’s not my intent at all to isolate on to one company,” he said.

But Stephen Gardner, the Tucson-based senior vice president for sales and marketing for Scientific Learning, said that’s the way it appears to his firm.

He said the language of HB 2485 sets up not only goals but very specific methods of how instruction must be offered and the software must work.

“We don’t do it exactly that way,” he said.

Gardner said Scientific Learning will try to bid on the contract if it becomes law. And he said his firm will make an argument that its own software does pretty much the same thing as what’s being sought in the language crafted by Imagine Learning.

“But I think we would be at a disadvantage,” he said.

There could be a lot of money involved.

Gray’s original measure sought $12 million a year for the next three years for statewide implementation. But he agreed to instead create a three-year pilot program for 10 school districts and five charter schools.

The cost is unknown. The legislation approved by the House has a blank where the funding should go, a fact that bothered Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, who voted against the plan.

But Carter’s objections went beyond supporting what for the moment is an unknown amount of spending.

“Right now the entire conversation has been around one company and one product,” she said, even if the legislation does say the contract would be put out to bid.

Sen. Lynne Pancrazi, D-

Yuma, who also made the trip to Utah, said the legislation could be seen as an effort to give a contract to Imagine Learning.

“It is and it isn’t,” she said. “If there’s another program out there that does what Imagine Learning does and provides as good a program, I don’t have any problems with it.”

Pancrazi also said in Utah only 80 percent of the schools are using Imagine Learning, with the other 20 percent getting their software from another vendor.

That, however, would not be an option here: The legislation requires the state Board of Education to award a contract to a single provider.

Nichols said the highly specific provisions built in the legislation are necessary to ensure the state gets the desired results. He compared it to the state putting out bids for new cars.

He said the state has a right to specify exactly what it wants in a vehicle, and the same applies to a learning program.

As far as the company writing the legislation, he said, “Why should we write (specs) ... so broad that, at the end of the day, the state might end up getting a Yugo instead of a Mercedes?” he asked.

Pancrazi, who taught kindergarten and second grade for 28 years in a school with a high percentage of Hispanic pupils, was clearly impressed with what she saw in Utah.

“Those kids up there are making some really good progress,” she said.

This isn’t the first go-round for the idea. Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, pushed a virtually identical plan last year, but it never was approved by the full Senate.

“It seemed like a sole-source provider in the bill, which is never a good thing,” said Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson . Bradley also said the impetus for the legislation came from Imagine Learning and not any demand from the education community.

Imagine Learning’s efforts are not limited to Arizona and Utah.

Key provisions of HB 2485 are taken nearly word for word from model legislation approved by the business-supported American Legislative Exchange Council — and Imagine Learning is one of the top funders of ALEC.

Gray said he had not seen the ALEC model legislation. But he said there is no reason to reject the idea just because it came from ALEC — and from one of its prime members.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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