State lawmakers are moving to require the state to buy computer programs for English learners with specifications that were crafted in detail by a company selling the software.
Lobbyist Warde Nichols admitted to Capitol Media Services HB 2485 came from Imagine Learning, a Utah-based firm whose specialties include program 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 this past week and awaiting a final roll-call vote, is quite specific on what has to be in the software.
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.”
It mandates that there be individualized instruction on the “five strands of literacy,” being phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, items listed in the company's publicity.
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.
Nichols insisted that 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 contention of House Majority Whip Rick Gray, R-Glendale, one of the legislators who went on that Utah trip and is the prime sponsor of the legislation.
“I have talked with other lobbyists for other software vendors,” he said, telling them that he is willing to make changes in the bid specifications.
“It's not my intent at all to isolate on to one company,” Gray 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 that 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.
How much that will cost is not known: 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 unknown amount of funding.
“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 that 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 anticipated results. He compared it to the state putting out bids for new cars.
“They have the right to say we want 21-inch wheels, we want water tires, we want fog lights,” he said. “The state can demand what they want to see on the tail end as far as results of that vehicle.”
Nichols said it was no different when Imagine Learning wrote the “request for proposals” language for this measure, continuing his parallel with car sales. He said it could be the difference between the state getting a cheap piece of junk from a failed car maker or a luxury vehicle.
“Why should we write an RFP that's so broad that, at the end of the day, the state might end up getting a Yugo instead of a Mercedes?” he asked.
Pancrazi said she has not focused on the wording of the legislation. Instead, she is looking at results. Pancrazi, who taught kindergarten and second grade for 28 years in a school with a high percentage of Hispanic kids, 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. Among the foes was Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson.
“It seemed like a sole-source provider in the bill, which is never a good thing,” he said. Bradley also said the impetus for the legislation came from Imagine Learning and not any demand from the education community.
Arizona may just be the first effort by Imagine Learning to get states across the country to seek out its software through legislation.
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 as shown by its “chairman's level” status along with tobacco giant Altria, Peabody Energy, Chevron and drug maker Bayer.
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.
“It's interesting when it comes to all this uproar about ALEC,” he said.
“Like, legislators shouldn't be listening to the business,” Gray continued. He said everyone at the Legislature from both parties needs to listen to all sources, including constituents, lobbyists and the business community.
“That's how we function and learn,” he said.