It might seem that education in the US – where we have had an extensive public education system for many decades – would be one area untouched by the effects of big money. Unfortunately, it is easy to prove otherwise. The insidious corruption flowing from the power of money can be seen both directly and indirectly in our public school systems from the youngest preschoolers all the way to university level.
Corruption sometimes takes the form of state education officials working hand-in-glove with companies that produce school materials (such as textbooks, online courses, and standardized tests) and making secret decisions about these materials based on money and perks received by officials rather than open bidding. Although standardized testing has been around since the early 20th century, the concept of holding schools accountable based on their students’ test scores began in the 1980s and became a federal issue when George W. Bush started the “No Child Left Behind” program. On the surface, accountability based on testing seems reasonable. It is easy, though, for leaders to turn this process to their own benefit if they find ways to ensure their materials are chosen by each state.
The Tangled Web: Nonprofits, Corporations, and Public Officials
For example, in 2008 former Florida governor Jeb Bush created a non-profit (501c3) called the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). In January, 2013, a group of emails between FEE and another Jeb Bush group, Chiefs for Change (the “chiefs” are current and former state commissioners of education), was leaked to the press by the nonprofit organization In the Public Interest. These emails detailed how Chiefs for Change worked with FEE to set up education policies that would benefit the individuals and companies who had contributed to the foundation — a clear example of the corrupting influence of money in public education.
It is this focus on profit first that makes these policies corrupt. In the world of business, it is expected and necessary that leaders should make profits a priority – after all, they have shareholders and investors who put their money into the company for the express purpose of making a profit. CEOs and other company leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders and investors to put profits first. But education – public education, funded by public dollars – is different in that the people who make the decisions are expected to make quality education their priority, not profits.
As examples of the corruption in education policy, Nation of Change (a progressive non-profit) reports:
- In New Mexico, FEE acted as a broker to organize closed-door meetings between their corporate donors and individual Chiefs for Change. At these meetings, contracts for textbooks, computer equipment, testing materials, and other educational services were awarded so that the contracts were either no-bid or the bidding was a farce, since the winner had already been selected.
- Maine moved the FEE policy agenda through legislation and executive order to remove barriers to online education and in some cases require online classes, thus allowing public dollars to flow to for-profit online schools and classes and eliminating the ability of local school districts to limit access to virtual schools.
- In Florida, FEE helped write legislation that would increase the use of a proprietary test (FCAT) under contract to Pearson, an FEE donor. Because this was done through legislation, it was a no-bid contract.
Blogger and investigative journalist Lee Fang of The Nation magazine delved further into the leaked emails between Jeb Bush’s education groups, stating:
… Bush could be using his education reform crusade for personal gain. In one e-mail from last year, Bush’s top aide at his foundation, Patricia Levesque, communicated with school officials to urge them to use a company called SendHub, a start-up that uses cloud computing and text messages. Bush, according to TechCrunch, has a modest “five-figure” investment in SendHub. Garrett Johnson, the founder of SendHub, previously worked for Bush and still serves on the board of Foundation for Florida’s Future(FFF), another Bush-run education nonprofit.
These e-mails offer a glimpse of the tangled web of big money in education, involving education reformers such as Jeb Bush, non-profit foundations such as FEE and FFF supported by companies selling education products and services, and state and local school officials.
The Perks of Educational Power
As school began in fall 2011, The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that a group of state education directors (including Iowa’s director) were flown to Rio de Janeiro for a weekend of fun in the sun. Who gave them this wine-and-dine vacation? Not surprisingly, it was Pearson Education Company, which publishes textbooks and supplementary materials, produces teacher training programs, and makes and scores standardized tests. Meanwhile, teachers in states like Iowa were scrounging to find enough money to buy supplies, often being forced to use their own money to give students the best quality education.
What’s wrong with this picture?
It is true that providing vacations and free meetings under the guise of “educational training” is a common practice in other professions as well as education. For example, doctors may receive thousands of dollars of comped entertainment and travel funded by pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. Lobbyists in Washington as well as state capitols continually find new ways to give legislators something to remember them by when it’s time to vote. But just because this is a common practice does not make it ethical.
“Quid Pro Quo?”
The corrupting power of electioneering has recently come under scrutiny since the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org court cases. Although the SuperPACs (who are expected to support candidates without coordination) insist they have not encouraged corruption because there is no obvious quid pro quo, the education reformers associated with FEE and similar groups are willing and even proud to say there is quid pro quo at the state and local levels. According to Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute,
“There’s going to be a sustained window of four to five years or longer where you’re going to find local districts with very tight budgets,” Hess said. “This is a huge moment of opportunity for funders to step up to the plate and say, ‘We’re going to help you out—but there’s a quid pro quo.’”
Quid quo pro is often described as “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” For example, in order to receive corporate funding (directly from the corporation or indirectly through a non-profit foundation) school districts and state school boards may be required to
- approve only the textbooks produced by the donor company,
- exclusively purchase the donor company’s computer hardware and/or software, or
- hire the donor company’s construction crews when building a new school or stadium.
These are only a few examples of the quid pro quo benefits that Rick Hess promises to education funders. Would these be acceptable if it were lobbyists and legislators?
The next post will focus on the for-profit charter schools that are taking public money away from traditional public schools.