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Schoolhouse junkets

Michael Winerip looks at the troubling intersection of education and business in this New York Times report published Sunday.

He reports that Pearson Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Pearson Education, has been sending top state education officials on junkets to London, Helsinki, Singapore and Rio de Janeiro. The officials stay in luxury hotels and meet with the company's top officials. Pearson is a major player in education products: textbooks, standardized tests, online courses.

"Pearson would not say which state commissioners have gone on the trips, but of the 10 whom I was able to identify," Winerip writes, "at least seven oversee state education departments that have substantial contracts with Pearson. For example, Illinois – whose superintendent, Christopher A. Koch, went to Helsinki in 2009 and to Rio de Janeiro (last week) – is currently paying Pearson $138 million to develop and administer its tests."

A Pearson Foundation official discounted concerns for providing free trips to clients who do millions of dollars in business with the foundation's business affiliate, but Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, accurately compares the practice to pharmaceutical companies providing junkets for doctors or lobbyists who arrange for members of Congress to travel overseas.

"If we want that kind of corruption in education, we're fools," he tells Winerip.

Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett wasn't on the travel roster reported by Winerip, but I reported last year that Pearson underwrote the cost of airing Bennett's inaugural State of Education address on public TV and radio stations across the state. Just weeks before the speech, Indiana awarded NCS Pearson a $224,720 contract to rewrite the state's teacher standards so that they aligned with the new academic standards. This past June, the Indiana Department of Education entered a six-year contract with Pearson Education to provide science and health textbooks for Indiana schools.

No sponsor was identified for this year's education address, which Bennett delivered last week.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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