Friday, January 13, 2012

Free trips not worth the price

H-L Smacks Holliday and Young

Leaves out an important fact

This morning the Herald-Leader editorial board weighed in on the recent Pearson scandal. Good. As the editorial points out, there are problems with the appearance, if not fact, of public officials getting too cozy with private companies who stand to gain millions through public contracts. But the facts are important. If the public is to make a reasoned judgment about the issue, they ought to have them all.

KASA's Wayne Young recently defended Lu Young (no relation so far as I know) in H-L saying that it was "both troubling and telling that the Herald-Leader would reprint a story from the New York Times regarding Jessamine County Schools superintendent Lu Young taking a professional trip to Australia without even making the effort to contact her for a response." Wayne complained about several of the facts being left out of the story, but for some reason did not mention that Lu voted against Pearson. Surely, that matters to some degree.
a more here:

The H-L's lead confirmed the editors' respect for Young - right before they disrespected her.

Similar to the H-L, KSN&C also reprinted the New York Times articles that originally raised the issue. We were criticized by a few folks who objected to our reprinting the story without jumping through all of the  professional journalistic hoops. Fair enough. We didn't. But when Lu Young contacted KSN&C to make sure we knew that she never voted for Pearson, and could prove it, we felt honor-bound to include it in our coverage and we posted the Jessamine Journal article that outlined the facts. We did what I imagined a professional journalist would do. We understand from Young that she sent the same information to the Times and the Herald-Leader. So far, the Times has stood by their story without any mention, but more surprisingly, the H-L completely ignored it in today's editorial.

If it's true that private companies might use undue influence to gain the favor of public officials - and it is - then it's important to point out - with respect to Young at least - that it didn't happen that way. After her fancy trip, Young voted for a different company. It doesn't absolve her, but it certainly lowers the degree of concern over her integrity.

To know pertinent facts about a case, but then to knowingly leave them out of the piece because including them weakens one's argument, is a questionable standard of journalism. Sound ethical practices of our public officials, and the reporters who cover them, both matter.

This from the Herald-Leader:
Lu Young, superintendent of schools in Jessamine County, is a respected professional who was named Kentucky's superintendent of the year in 2011. So, to many of her admirers here in Kentucky, it was a surprise and a shame her name appeared at the top of a story in the first section of The New York Times.

It was not because of her accomplishments as an educator but to recount a trip she took that illustrates the ethical muddy waters stirred up by the extremely close relationship between Pearson Education Inc. and the Pearson Foundation.

The story, reprinted in the Herald-Leader, evoked defensive praise for Young and scorn of the Times and its reporting. There's no reason to believe Young did anything wrong, but criticizing the messenger won't make this go away. The suspicion of unethical dealing will persist until educators stop taking trips paid for by companies that stand to make money selling products and services to their institutions.

Briefly, Young went to Australia with other educators on a trip organized by an education nonprofit and paid for by the Pearson Foundation. A few months later, back in Kentucky, she participated in a panel that interviewed executives of education companies, including Pearson, that were bidding to run Kentucky's testing program.

Although its bid was $2 million higher than the low bidder, CTB/McGraw Hill, Pearson got the contract.

The Times had reported earlier that Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday had taken similar trips, to China and Brazil, after his department approved the $57-million contract with Pearson.

Pearson protests that the foundation is simply a way of returning money to education and that educators benefit from meeting colleagues from other countries and seeing what they're doing.

No argument here that our education system can gain from a broader view. But the links between the two Pearsons are too close for comfort. Here are some of the connections that have been reported:

1. The company controls the foundation's board of directors;
2. At least one person is an officer of both the company and the foundation;
3. They have the same address.
4. Although Pearson Education executives have attended the education conferences subsidized by Pearson Foundation money, no representatives of other education companies have been identified on the lists of attendees.

We make no case that either Young or Holliday did anything wrong. Both say the trips had no bearing on the contract.
This would have been a nice place to mention that Young voted for Measured Progress, not Pearson.
But, this is the thing: The contract wasn't let solely on price, nor should it have been. Educational testing is a complex business, so there's a significant element of judgment involved in evaluating the bidder's services.

No less an expert than Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist in Washington, explained last week in Frankfort, how judgment can become clouded by gifts and hospitality.

The (Louisville) Courier-Journal's account of Abramoff's talk includes this:

"Lawmakers never believe they will be bought, Abramoff added. But he warned that lobbyists become successful by building relationships and that gifts or contributions are designed to take advantage of a person's natural instincts to express gratitude. 'When somebody does something good for you, you are going to have to feel that way in your soul, and when you do I would hold that that is the problem,' he said,"

We'll go even a step further. Even if a cozy relationship doesn't lead to a problem, the appearance of the relationship will lead to suspicion that a problem does or could exist. Our ethics laws are intended not only to avoid corruption but the appearance of it because both destroy public confidence in government.

Nothing is more important to Kentucky than public education, which relies on public support. These trips aren't worth the price in public confidence. Educators should stop taking them.
Since the selection of Pearson was ultimately made possible by the input of KDE staff, H-L could do a public service by drilling into the specific issues of how the KDE contract came to be awarded to Pearson after two subgroups thought a different company could provide better service. Who voted for that?

It is the state legislature's failure to adequately fund the changes it demands in law that makes this kind of situation more likely to occur than not. The commissioner is essentially left with two choices: fail to implement the law, or go find the money to implement it - anywhere other than Frankfort. The net effect is that the federal government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drive education policy in Kentucky because it's where the money is - and there is no counter-balance for those who think that corporate education reform is off track.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In reference to the last paragraph, I know this is a stretch but in someways public schools seem to be following a path similar to our US Postal Service.

The Postal Service is a long standing government organization (actually justified in the U.S. Constitution) which was transformed into a self funding, semi autonomous entity back in the early 70's and as of late has found itself unable to compete with evolving conditions (email,Fax iphone, etc) and competitors (UPS, Fed Ex,). So now it is forced to reduce staff and service as well as increase prices in order to maintain a service and process which is increasingly outdated and of limited use.

Now we find schools having legislative mandates imposed while state tax funding decreases as local tax burden increases to absorb lost state revenue and increasing benefit burden being shifted from state to local districts. There is an expectation that we be more efficient in both resources and outcomes as well as more "entrepenurial". (Is it me or does legislation supporting advertising on the side of school buses seem rather desperate and pathetic?)
Folks with money and the opportunity are increasingly using private sector schools to better serve their needs or establish charter schools which perhaps can circumvent some state operational parameters.

Similarly, our leaders continue to create educational visions based around a romanticized and sometimes even impractical image of industrial age concept of school, instead of completely shifting the paradigm to something which has potential for actually providing individualized, high quality education. If we are 14th in the country for planning and policy, then what in the world were we doing before this and can we really expect this new and improved vision to result in tangible, real life results anymore than all the other KERA, CATS, etc reforms we have endured up to now?

The only thing in Austrailia is a free vacation and trying to say it has some significant educational value that is going to help Kentucky kids shows you how far some will go to justify their actions.