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HISD wary in deal with Bush brother

HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com ;| Section: Local & State

Dec. 14, 2003, 12:15AM

HISD wary in deal with Bush brother
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Investors in Neil Bush's educational software company include:

·Bush's parents, former President George and Barbara Bush.

·Winston Wong, a Taiwanese semiconductor tycoon who founded Shanghai Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. with the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

·Former Iranian ambassador to the United States Hushang Ansary, now a Houston businessman and large GOP donor.

·Cairo businessman Hamza El Khouli, an associate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and chairman of First Arabian Development and Investment Co.

·Les and Anne Csorba of Houston, who served in the first Bush administration and donated $2,000 to President Bush's 2000 election campaign.

·Sofidiv Inc., a division of the Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury goods company.

·Mohammed Al Saddah of the Ultra Horizon Co. in Kuwait.

Sources: Associated Press; Chronicle research As Neil Bush's soap-operatic life took another twist in France last week with his engagement over chocolates and champagne, he hoped that a business deal back in Houston would help him move forward with his new calling.

On Thursday, the Houston Independent School District board was scheduled to seal a deal that could have given Bush's fledgling educational software company, Ignite, an important edge over competitors in the $7 billion-a-year industry.

The board in June already had approved spending $115,000 this academic year to use the company's eighth-grade U.S. history curriculum in 23 schools, on the condition that Bush and the HISD Foundation come up with an additional $115,000 to fully fund the program. Bush and the foundation, a philanthropic organization, lived up to their end of the bargain, persuading several wealthy Houstonians and major corporations to pony up the funds.

But the board voted 5-3 to delay accepting the donations, with some board members saying they worried they might be accused of helping Bush cash in on his family name.

Houston public schools are already using Neil Bush's Ignite educational software on the following campuses:

Middle schools: Burbank, Clifton, Deady, Dowling, Edison, Energized for Excellence, Fleming, Fonville, Hartman, Holland, Jackson, Long, McReynolds, Patrick Henry, The Rice School, Stevenson, Woodson.

High schools: Austin, Chavez, Furr, Sam Houston, Sterling, Worthing.

Bush's business dealings have recently come under scrutiny with his contentious divorce from his wife, Sharon. In a deposition, Bush admitted that Ignite investor Winston Wong, a Taiwanese semiconductor tycoon, paid him $2 million in stock for consulting in the semiconductor industry, even though he has no experience in the field.

"I'm not, as a trustee, going to engage in another debacle; we've had enough of those on our hands," said board member Larry Marshall, referring to the dropout reporting scandal that has recently rocked HISD.

Even though Ignite has been implemented in 17 HISD middle schools and six high schools since August, board members asked for more information about the program's performance and how HISD entered into the agreement before approving the outside funding.

Ken Leonard, president of Ignite, said he understands why HISD trustees would want to keep a "low profile" because of recent negative coverage, but he expects the matter to be quickly resolved.

The Austin-based company has been frequently examined in the media since Bush founded it in 1999, primarily because of its unusual funding sources and his family ties. Some of the $23 million the company has raised in four rounds of financing has come from foreign oil and computer magnates, and other funds have come from GOP donors who are close to the Bush family. Commentators and watchdog groups have suggested that these contributions were made in the hopes of gaining access to the White House.

They also note that Bush's two brothers are strong advocates of educational policies that could greatly benefit his company. President Bush made educational accountability one of his top priorities as Texas governor, and he is now pushing similar policies nationally through the No Child Left Behind initiative. Jeb Bush has taken similar positions as governor of Florida.

School administrators and teachers, increasingly judged by how many of their students pass state-mandated accountability tests, are often turning to educational software to try to motivate bored or troubled students.

"Sales in Texas are usually driven by mathematics and reading, but we expect social studies will be emerging as a more important subject area in the next few years, largely as a result of TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the new state-mandated test)," said Tom Deliganis of Houston, regional vice president for Plato Learning, the largest provider of educational software in the state.

Deliganis said Neil Bush tried to hire him in 2000.

"He's a competitor, and I don't necessarily want to see him do well, but I don't get the impression he's a sleazy guy," Deliganis said. "I get the impression he's trying to improve education."

But few can forget Bush's checkered business history. In the late 1980s, he served as director of Silverado Savings and Loan, which collapsed during the S&L scandal and cost taxpayers about $1 billion. A civil lawsuit against Bush and other Silverado officers was settled for $49.5 million.

Bush, 47, last week denied that he is trying to capitalize on his brothers' substantial influence.

"I've had zero conversation (with my brothers) regarding policy, and effectively none about my business," he said.

He called his new business a "definite lifelong focus of mine."

A dyslexic student who often fell behind in middle school, Bush said he endured an oppressive school environment but persevered to earn a bachelor's degree and an MBA from Tulane University in New Orleans.

"I worked harder than the average student and survived grade school, but have scarred memories of a stifling learning environment," Bush wrote in an e-mail exchange with the Houston Chronicle from France, where he proposed to his Houston girlfriend, Maria Andrews.

Bush said he developed an interest in educational reform after seeing his son Pierce go through a similar painful experience. After researching "multiple intelligences" and other educational theories, Bush said, "I developed the core beliefs that drive our business."

Developed by a Harvard cognition expert, multiple intelligence theory posits that students have different types of "intelligences" -- visual, auditory or interpersonal, for example -- and that traditional schooling does not work for all types.

"The one-size-fits-all method of instruction fails most students," Bush wrote. "We believe learning is best accomplished by doing. Learning is an active process that involves thinking. Learning is only partly about memorization, memorizing leads to forgetting. And finally we believe there is an unrealized potential for harnessing the power of technology to allow teachers to make individual and unique connections with each student."

Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University education professor and a leading expert on the teaching of history, said that while he is not familiar with Ignite software, he doubts the underlying theory.

"Multiple-intelligence theory has absolutely no data to support it," he said.

Ignite develops products for middle-school students. It offers an eighth-grade U.S. history curriculum, and it plans to develop software for math, science and language arts. It is available in some high schools for remedial programs and students with limited English proficiency.

Ignite president Leonard said this is the first full year the company has sold its product. Previously, it provided software free to schools around the country to generate a track record. Most of the 40,000 students who use the software are in Texas, Leonard said, but others are in Florida, California, Ohio, Georgia, New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona and Oklahoma.

HISD is by far the largest user of Ignite products, Leonard said.

The company approached HISD in 2002, and the district agreed to pay $45,000 to use the software in six middle schools in 2002-2003. HISD Superintendent Kaye Stripling said the district initially balked at expanding the program because of the annual $10,000-per-school price. Eager to enlist a large number of schools into the program, Bush agreed to let them pay half and raise the rest of the money with the foundation's help.

"We wouldn't be able to do that," said Arnold Kleinstein, vice president of WorldView Software, the nation's largest maker of social studies and history educational software, about Bush's ability to quickly persuade movers and shakers to contribute funds.

Karen Billings, vice president of a Washington, D.C., educational software trade association, said she finds Bush's fund-raising prowess "very unusual."

Former Iranian Ambassador Hushang Ansary, a Houston businessman who is one of the donors to the HISD effort and is an investor in the company, said the suspicion is unfair.

"Every time someone succeeds in public service, others look around to penalize people who are members of his family," Ansary said. "I'm not aware of any effort on the part of Neil Bush to benefit from the president's presence in the White House."

Principals, teachers and students in Houston, Austin and the Whitney High School in Cerritos, Calif., interviewed for this story, all raved about the software. The teachers and students were provided by administrators.

"My mom heard me sing a history song, and said, `Where'd you get that from?' " said Elibeth Matamoros, an eighth-grader in HISD's Edison Middle School in the East End. "I never sang about history before."

Edison history teacher Marc Chicoria said he uses Ignite to supplement the class textbook. Since the school started using the program, he said, students have performed better on critical-thinking tests related to social studies.

Connie Barr, principal at Mendez Middle School in Austin, said Ignite played a major role in increasing state test scores in social studies by 28 percent a couple of years ago.

But Wineburg, the Stanford professor, said such claims must be evaluated by independent third parties before they can be taken seriously.

Ignite and the HISD Foundation are negotiating with the University of Houston's College of Education to research the software.

UH Education Dean Robert Wimpelberg said the terms are being hammered out and that the foundation would pay for the project.

ON THE INTERNET-- IGNITE www.ignitelearning.com 

HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com ;| Section: Local & State
This article is: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/metropolitan/2292184