Remember I CAN Learn? The computerized math program that didn’t work was peddled by New Orleans entrepreneur and friend of former Fort Worth ISD superintendent Tom Tocco, who convinced trustees to sign contracts worth nearly $16 million for the program in 1999 and then went on to lobby Congress to provide millions of dollars in earmarks to help keep in business the company owned by J.R. Lee.
Lee showed his gratitude by hiring Tocco as a consultant when the super was dumped by the district in 2004. Tocco hotly denied there was ever a quid pro quo in the deal that netted a sizable profit for Lee and later a job for Tocco, but a recent bribery conviction in New Orleans raises the question again of just how thin the ethical line has been between Lee and the folks he uses to sell his product. Lee has denied any knowledge of the bribe and has not been charged with a crime.
On August 21, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that a federal jury convicted Mose Jefferson, brother of recently convicted New Orleans Democratic congressman William Jefferson, on four charges of bribery of New Orleans Parish school board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms in a smarmy scheme in which Mose paid Brooks-Simms around $100,000 for her vote that put I CAN Learn in the parish schools in 2003 and 2004 at a cost of $14 million. Mose, who was peddling the program on behalf of Lee, made $900,000 in commissions.
Taxpayers in both cities got screwed, but as in all such schemes that prey on kids, the real losers in this sad tale are the children. (New Orleans before Katrina was known to have one of the worst school systems in the country.) In New Orleans, as promoted by Brooks-Simms, and in Fort Worth under Tocco’s glowing recommendations, ICL was touted as a program “proven” by independent researchers to dramatically raise math scores. Tocco called it “so superior” that kids could use it “without a teacher” (which did little to endear him to teachers). He was wrong on both counts. The program was a sham. After Tocco left, an independent research group from Austin found that ICL didn’t improve math scores here one iota. Test results for the New Orleans schools were just as dismal. Worse, an investigation by Fort Worth Weekly (“I Can Earn,” Feb. 16, 2005) showed that the only “research” provided by Lee to the district showing that the program improved math scores was done by one consultant who just happened to work for Lee and who helped design the program.
Wouldn’t you think a fine superintendent like Tom Tocco would have known that?