Thanks to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the charitable arm of testing giant Pearson will pay $7.7 million to end his investigation into whether it was illegally helping its for-profit parent company. This comes as a shock to Texans, where Pearson has an eye-popping $462-million testing contract, as opposed to New York where Pearson is only getting $32 million. The surprise isn’t that a special interest cut corners at taxpayers expense but that a state attorney general can investigate it. It’s simply not done here, but then again, why isn’t Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, now running for governor, investigating the Pearson Foundation?
In New York, Pearson funded its charitable foundation — legally — and then the foundation spent its money in a way that benefited its for-profit parent company — illegally. Among the verboten activities found in New York was that the Pearson Foundation “had helped develop products for its corporate parent, including course materials and software,” according to The New York Times.
Common Core is at the (pardon) core of the scandal in New York. Mercedes Schneider, a high school teacher with a Ph.D. and a healthy disrespect for corporate balderdash, did some digging and found that between 2009 and 2011, the Pearson Foundation gave $540,000 to Council of Chief State School Officers, one of two Common Core State Standards copyright holders. The Pearson Foundation also worked with the Gates Foundation to create courses based on Common Core that it sold to Pearson for $15.5 million.
This kind of hand-in-glove relationship between Pearson’s foundation and for-profit interests exists in Texas. In 2009 and in 2010, the Pearson Foundation gave two endowments totaling $400,000 to the University of Texas College of Education, home to the Pearson Center for Applied Psychometric Research where they do “cutting edge statistical and psychometric research and evaluation services to further educational improvements ... and to inform educators, researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders in the education process.” And since 2000, these policymakers have given Pearson contracts totaling $1.2 billion.
There’s a “you get what you pay for” quality to academic research that dovetails with the corporate interests that fund it, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. If the former had anything to do with the latter, the Pearson Foundation may have broken the law and is why the Texas Attorney General needs to take a close look at Pearson.
According to local custom, Texas has elected leaders openly hostile to regulating polluters, assault weapons, and exploding fertilizer plants — in short, everything except a woman’s uterus. And there’s ample evidence that state officials have put the lazy in laissez faire when it comes to providing effective oversight of Pearson’s massive contract.
A state audit last July revealed that the Texas Education Agency “lacks adequate processes for monitoring the contract.” For example, when Texas cut the number of required high school tests from 15 to five, the TEA had no itemized list of deliverables in the contract, so the state had to ask Pearson how much it should reduce its contract. Pearson, which cut its pay by 2 percent, could teach lessons to Scott Boras, the baseball agent who specializes in record-breaking contracts.
Along with rolling back testing requirements, Texas made it illegal for lobbyists for testing companies to serve on advisory boards and to make campaign contributions. It is not local custom to make it a crime to give a Texas politician money, but everyone knew that the provision was aimed at one person in particular — Sandy Kress, the architect of No Child Left Behind and, coincidentally, a Pearson lobbyist who served on several state advisory boards.
For a long time, Pearson has been allowed to operate without oversight or even much attention in the state where high-stakes testing was born. The recent settlement in New York and this summer’s audit serves notice that if we don’t know that Pearson has been breaking the rules in Texas, it’s probably because no one has bothered to look.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.This column has been edited by the author.