Reading between the lines

Is Earning By Learning – Like Newt’s Earlier Charities – A Way For His Supporters To Buy Influence?

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Newt Gingrich’s Earning by Learning literacy program, which pays inner-city children $2 for every book they read, is his kind of charity. It’s not like those nasty federal help programs, which he describes in his book, To Renew America, as “the government taking billions of dollars from reluctant taxpayers and scattering it among the poor.” His program, he says, is efficient.

It’s also wonderful window dressing. By donating sales generated from book signings to the program, combined with the accompanying press shoots, Gingrich merrily detracts attention from the ongoing probe into House ethics charges against him. At the same time, he gets to promote a program he can trumpet as “thin and nonbureaucratic,” requiring only volunteer adults and “no money.” But it appears that inner-city children aren’t the only ones benefiting. Since 1992, Mel Steely, the program’s guru at West Georgia College, pocketed nearly half of the Georgia programUs $62,000 endowment for his own “fees,” according to The Wall Street Journal. But, calling himself an exception, Steely said critics should examine the programs nationwide to determine the charity’s efficiency.

So we took a look. In Houston, the coordinator of the Earning by Learning program collects an undisclosed salary. In Atlanta, “volunteers” are paid $500 a pop to visit the inner city. And in Denver, the program quietly has budgeted a position that will consume 43 percent of the group’s total budget. The program’s sponsors might also walk away from their experience with more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. Houston’s Earning by Learning program is supported by the Houston Automobile Dealers Association. The program’s co-founder, Charles Smith (who owns an Acura dealership), recently had the opportunity to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee, arguing against the luxury tax, which levies a 10 percent tax on certain auto purchases above $32,000.

Smith says that since becoming involved with Earning by Learning, the dealers association has had frequent access to Gingrich to speak “about industry-related issues, tax-related issues, government- related issues, you name it.”

And what about Earning by Learning’s other humanitarians? A leaked list of the program’s “sponsors” is heavy on conservative activists, elected officials, and party donors, but light on educators and people noted for volunteerism. A sampling:

Joe Barton: Republican congressman from Texas and a top fundraiser for GOPAC.

Don Balfour: Georgia Republican state senator and executive at Waffle House Inc. (which has donated to Gingrich’s campaign and to his Progress & Freedom Foundation).

Melissa Hart: Pennsylvania Republican state representative and founder of the First Freedoms Fund, dedicated to countering the ACLU.

Nancy Goettman: One of Orlando’s leading Christian Coalition activists

Charles Kolb: Dan Quayle’s policy adviser, now legal counsel for United Way of America.

Mike Schwartz: An ex-director at Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, he spearheaded the group’s campaign to “put stigma back in divorce”; now a talk show host on the conservative National Empowerment Television.

Marshall Fritz: Spokesperson for the Separation of School & State Alliance, which wants to abolish public schools.

Lawrence Kind: Business manager at Milliken Chemical Co. CEO Roger Milliken has donated $255,000 to GOPAC, and Gingrich devoted more than 20 minutes to Milliken and Co. in his televised college course.

And how does the program compare with other literacy efforts? Andrew McKean–the founder of Denver’s program–proudly estimates that 280 kids will participate next year, and that students will average about $60 (30 books) for the summer, costing a total of $16,800.

Across town, the Denver Public Library involved 30,000 children –a third of all Denver children below the age of 14–in its reading program. Spokeswoman Anya Breitenbach says librarians volunteered their time (without additional compensation) to conduct reading circles, and rewarded children with donated items, such as Colorado Rockies’ baseball cards or tickets to a local amusement park. According to Breitenbach, “It didn’t cost the taxpayers anything.”

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