by David Safier
Kudos to Howie Fischer for his article in Saturday’s Star, Education software law written by software vendor raises questions. It’s about a bill, HB2485, which would award a no-bid contract to a Utah company, Imagine Learning, to supply software to Arizona school districts for English Language Learners. It’s not officially no-bid, but as Fischer indicates, the language in the bill is so specific to the Imagine Learning product, no other company could compete successfully.
In 2013, I wrote a series of posts on Blog for Arizona about a similar bill sponsored by Al Melvin, SB1239, (the posts are here, here, here and here) as well a column in the Weekly. Fischer mentions Melvin's bill in his article. I also noted that current Ed Supe, then State Senator John Huppenthal joined Melvin in sponsoring a similar bill, SB1319, in 2010.
I suggest anyone interested in this attempt to hand a multi-million dollar contract to Imagine Learning give Fischer’s article a close read. Let me add some information, some of which overlaps with Fischer’s reporting.
• While the 2010 bill had two sponsors, Huppenthal and Melvin, and Melvin was the sole sponsor of the 2013 bill since Hupp had moved on to be Ed Supe, the current bill has 26 sponsors, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Maybe the current sponsors discovered Melvin had it right all along, I don’t know.
• The bill passed the House 34-24, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the vote. However, a few of the original sponsors voted against it. I don’t know what made them change their minds. They may not have known the bill was written for a specific company when they sponsored it, or they may not have liked the changes made to the bill before it came to a vote.
• Al Melvin loves Imagine Learning so much, he mentioned it frequently on the campaign trail in 2012. In a debate on Arizona Public Media, Melvin said, “There’s a company up in Utah by the name of Imagine Learning and they’ve had phenomenal success with third graders getting them up to speed in English.”
• Imagine Learning has a contract to supply software to schools in its home state of Utah. According to a Utah writer, the company gave in the neighborhood of $12,000 in campaign contributions to conservative Utah legislators in 2009, including the Chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee and a key member of the Senate Education Committee. I have no knowledge of the company making any campaign contributions in Arizona.
• Imagine Learning isn’t just a member of ALEC, the conservative group that pushes model bills through legislatures around the country. It’s at the second highest funding level along with some of the country’s biggest special interests. The only two companies at the highest funding level are Reynolds (tobacco) and the State Policy Network (SPN), which is a conglomeration of astroturf groups funded by the Koch Brothers, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Insurance and others.
• Imagine Learning is well loved by conservative “education reformers.” It was awarded the Innovation in Education award at the Parents for Choice in Education symposium held in Salt Lake City in December, 2012. The two featured speakers at the symposium were Matthew Ladner, the former Education Director for the Goldwater Institute, and Ladner’s good friend Jay Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.