A few weeks ago, I wrote a long story about the widespread sentiment that the U.S. Department of Education has, for a number of years, given short shrift to the unique needs of English-language learners, who now make up about one out of every 10 students in public schools.
Much of my piece focused on the steadily diminishing clout of the Office of English-Language Acquisition within the Education Department, which, in October, saw the departure of its appointed director, Rosalinda Barrera, and on broader concerns that the department needs to offer more support to the state and local district administrators responsible for Title III funds, the $750 million in federal money that helps pay for educating English-learners.
One of the remaining key functions of OELA, which lost its authority over Title III funds in 2007, is the oversight and management of the National Clearinghouse for English-Language Acquisition. NCELA, as it's best known, is a nearly 40-year-old federally funded information clearinghouse that is supposed to be the go-to source on language instruction and research related to English-language learners. It's supposed to be the place to turn to for reliable, up-to-date data on the number of ELLs in schools, for example, and the latest research on what instructional strategies work, or don't, for English-learners.
But, as several people I interviewed told me, NCELA has not been viewed in the field as the most useful source of information and support for Title III programs in a long time.
The Education Department last June opted not to re-up the NCELA contract with George Washington University—which has managed the clearinghouse for years with a team of researchers and consultants at the education school—and opened up a brand new competition to interested bidders. The department's rules for the competition made it clear that it wanted a small business to be the lead contractor.
I was really only able to scratch the surface of the NCELA contracting situation in my story, and it deserves a much fuller airing, based on what I know at this point.
Soon after the competition was announced, George Washington moved to lay off a number of NCELA staff, including the executive director who left at the end of the summer. But the university appears to still be functioning as the manager of NCELA. It's certainly still hosting the NCELA website. The winner of the new NCELA contract, Leed Management Consulting, of Silver Spring, was given an award of more than $1.5 million in September, but curiously, in November, that amount was reduced by more than $560,000, according to usaspending.gov, a searchable database of contracts and grants awarded by the federal government. The department apparently issued that amount to George Washington to extend the NCELA contract, though the agency's record of that is not available on usaspending.gov.
The department's contracting process was riddled with hiccups—including mistakes it made when selecting the size and type of small businesses that would be considered as eligible contractors. One bidder, a Washington-based company called edCount, ultimately filed two protests over the Education Dept.'s failure to follow federal procurement regulations—one with the Small Business Administration and another with the Government Accountability Office. EdCount's GAO protest prompted the department to write to the watchdog agency saying it would take corrective action. In a letter dated Oct. 31, the GAO wrote in a decision on edCount's protest that the Education Department "intends to reconvene the evaluation panel, reevaluate proposals, and, if necessary, conduct discussions and evaluate the offerors' responses" before making another decision about which vendors are sufficiently qualified to be awarded the contract. The department's office of general counsel told the GAO that it expected this do-over process to take about 80 days, which would mean by the end of this month.
So that appears to be keeping matters in a sort of holding pattern while the Education Department's lawyers sort out a mess of a procurement process. Leed Management Inc., meanwhile, has NCELA listed as a current project on its website.
Now, who is Leed Management Consulting Inc., and what qualifications does it bring to the table for managing a $2 million annual federal contract that is designed to serve educators who work with English-language learners? The company is described on its website as "an 8(a)-certified, minority-owned small business based in Silver Spring, Md. We offer a wide range of specialized consulting services to government and commercial clients." The only staff member named on Leed's website is Yonas LeBaron, who is described as having experience with federal contracts in the areas of emergency management and homeland security, while the rest of the company's team is lumped together in a generic descriptor as "communication specialists, conference managers, researchers, grant/technical specialists, and senior associates" who have "amassed more than 30 years of expertise in the public education arena."
Among the business partners it lists is Synergy Enterprises Inc., also of Silver Spring, which is one of two subcontractors that Leed selected to be part of its winning proposal to manage NCELA. Notably, Synergy is the primary contractor on several Education Department projects, including one that provides assistance to magnet schools for which Leed is a subcontractor. Lots of interesting overlap here, including location. Both Leed and Synergy are based in the same office building in downtown Silver Spring, but in different suites.
Another notable wrinkle is that Synergy Enterprises had sought to bid as the primary contractor for NCELA, but ultimately couldn't because its revenues were too large to make it eligible under the Ed. Dept.'s small business specifications. An attempt by Synergy to protest the business size was turned down by the Small Business Administration. But later, it appeared as a listed subcontractor on Leed's proposal, along with the Center for Applied Linguistics.
EdCount's second protest was to the Small Business Administration contending that Leed, as the primary contractor, did not demonstrate enough expertise to manage the NCELA contract and would be too reliant on its two subcontractors in violation of the federal contracting rules specific to this competition. That protest remains under consideration with the SBA. EdCount, by the way, is headed up by Ellen Forte, who has done a great deal of work for the Education Department on English-learner issues. She's also the co-author of a widely used guide on Title III policy and regulations.
In the meantime, the inner workings of OELA, which was responsible for overseeing this contracting process, are curious. An eagle-eyed source early in December pointed out that several members of the Education Department's office of general counsel were listed in the Federal Register as the points of contact for agencies applying for two discretionary grants aimed at school programs that serve Native American and Alaska Native children, which has always been under OELA's purview. When I checked the posting in the Federal Register more recently, though, only OELA contacts were listed.