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Transparency Watch: Federal ELL Clearinghouse Remains in Limbo

The U.S. Department of Education's process to find a new contractor to manage the National Clearinghouse for English-Language Acquisition seems to be one without end.

For the second time in the past six months, a protest of the department's contracting process has prompted agency officials to say they will hold a "do over" of sorts in their competition to award a $1.5 million contract for the clearinghouse, known best as NCELA. That decision means NCELA won't likely have a new contractor overseeing its operations until well into the summer.

A spokesman for the Education Department has not responded to my request to more fully explain the contracting situation.

The clearinghouse—which has been managed by researchers and consultants at George Washington University for years—was created by Congress to be the go-to source on language instruction and research related to English-language learners, as well as a reliable source of data on ELLs. English-learners are the fastest growing group of students in public schools.

But for almost a year, the status of the clearinghouse has been in limbo since the Department declined to re-up the NCELA contract with George Washington University and opened a new competition for interested bidders. The department put a priority on awarding the contract to a small business. From the beginning, the department's process was a rocky one that has been protested four times by a single bidder for the new contract, a Washington-based company called edCount.

The first protest led the department to acknowledge an error in selecting the small business size standard under which it intended to limit the NCELA competition. Then last fall, after the Department first awarded the NCELA contract to Leed Management Consulting, a small business in Silver Spring, Md., edCount filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, saying it had been wrongfully excluded from consideration and challenging the award to Leed. That GAO protest prompted the first pledge from department officials to take "corrective action" and review the entire contracting process, including whether any of the original bidders had incorrectly been excluded. That review should have been done at the end of January, but instead dragged on into April when edCount learned, once again, that it would not be considered as an awardee for the contract. The company again filed a protest with the GAO, saying the education department had wrongfully shut them out of the competition.

In the meantime, Leed, which had had its original $1.5 million for the contract cut by $560,000 last November, was defunded altogether by the Education Department in March. Around the same time, more than $350,000 was authorized to GWU for the clearinghouse through the middle of June, according to usaspending.gov, a searchable database of contracts and grants awarded by the federal government.

Which brings us to the latest wrinkle in the NCELA saga. As they did last fall when the GAO was reviewing edCount's protest, the Education Department's lawyers have written a letter (dated May 7) to the watchdog agency saying the department would take "corrective action" and re-evaluate whether any bidders were incorrectly excluded from the competition.

As I reported late last year, some researchers, advocates, and ELL administrators in states view the bungled NCELA contracting process as symptomatic of the Education Department's lack of focus and attention to the unique needs of English-learners.

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