Pearson Trips Raise Ethics Questions for Ed Officials

Over the past few years the Pearson Foundation has financed free international trips for education commissioners whose states do business with the company, but what has now come into question are the motives behind meetings with the company’s top executives while on the trips, writes Michael Winerip at the New York Times.

When the state commissioners are asked about these trips with the Pearson Foundation – the nonprofit arm of one of the nation’s largest educational publishers – whether it be to Rio de Janeiro, or London or Singapore – they:

“emphasize the time they spend with educators from around the world to get ideas for improving American public schools. And rarely do they mention that they also meet with top executives of the Pearson company.”

The first three years that Pearson financed the trips, no more than six commissioners attended any of them; last month, in Brazil, 12 were at the meeting.

The trips are solely educational, says the foundation’s officials, claiming they have no business purpose. The foundation’s tax forms leave blank the line for listing “payments of travel or entertainment expenses for any federal, state or local public officials”.

And, as Winerip claims, that may be a problem. Experts in tax law say that Pearson appears to be using its foundation to push its business interests, which would be a violation of the federal tax code, writes Winerip.

“The Pearson conferences fit the same fact pattern as the influence-buying junkets that the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff arranged for members of Congress,” said Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer who was director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service for 10 years and is a former board member of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. “Those junkets were paid for by private charities.”

The education commissioners may also be violating state ethics laws. As Winerip reported about the conferences last month, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board opened an inquiry to determine whether the recent trip to Brazil by its commissioner, Jason E. Glass, violated state law.

Illinois is paying Pearson $138 million to administer the state’s standardized testing program; Virginia is paying $110 million and Kentucky $57 million. All three of their commissioners have attended the conferences.

A spokeswoman for Dr. Glass said that he was “confident he abided by all legal and ethical rules”.

In an e-mail, Mark Nieker, president of the Pearson Foundation, wrote:

“We once again categorically refute any suggestion that the events are in any way unethical or designed to enable Pearson to win contracts.”

“Any attempt to draw a connection between states that attend and customers of Pearson is based on a false premise,” Mr. Nieker said, because the company’s business operations and its foundation are separate.

One state commissioner, Michael P. Flanagan of Michigan, has stopped attending conferences because, he says, of ethics concerns.

“The awarding of contracts to Pearson in Kentucky and Virginia illustrate the problem.”

In April, CTB/McGraw Hill submitted the lowest bid to run Kentucky’s testing program, but Pearson, whose bid was $2 million higher, was selected. Winerip writes that in May, the state’s commissioner, Terry Holliday, wrote on his blog that he recently “had the honor” of taking a trip to China sponsored by the council, the Asia Society and the Pearson Foundation, and in September he went to Brazil, too.

Holliday was joined by education leaders from other states on the China and Brazil trips. The trips were organized through the Council of Chief State School Officers, made up of the top education officials in each state. Holliday is a council director, writes Jim Warren at Kentucky.com.

Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said the Pearson Inc. contract was awarded through Kentucky’s state procurement process, and Holliday was not involved. One education department employee was part of a 12-member review team that worked on the selection, she said.

“Everything we did on this, I think, was aboveboard,” Gross said.