A top Virginia education official is under fire for accepting overseas trips funded in part by Pearson, a company whose contracts with the state education department are worth millions of dollars.

Patricia I. Wright, the state superintendent of instruction, has attended conferences sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers’ in London, Portugal, Finland and Brazil. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, those events were “underwritten, in part, by the Pearson Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of education giant Pearson.”

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles B. Pyle said the trips were funded completely by the council and were approved by the state secretary of education. A council spokeswoman told the Times-Dispatch that the international program, which has been sponsoring opportunities for education officials to visit foreign school systems for over two decades, is supported by many organizations, including the Pearson Foundation.

Wright serves on the council’s board of directors, and claims that the overseas conferences “provide an opportunity for American education policymakers to meet with their international counterparts,”according to a statement she released last week.

Pearson has a $110 million contract to develop statewide standardized tests over three years and a $3.2 million contract for the creation and maintenance of the Virginia Student Longitudinal Data System.

In June 2010, the state named Pearson as one of 13 companies approved to provide online learning services. In a Pearson news release cited by the New York Times, Dr. Wright again singled out the company for building “on a partnership that has made the Commonwealth of Virginia a national leader.”

Pearson Foundation officials say the free trips are “solely educational and have no business purpose.” On the foundation’s tax forms for the last two years, the line for listing “payments of travel or entertainment expenses for any federal, state or local public officials” has been left blank,” according to the New York Times.

“The Pearson conferences fit the same fact pattern as the influence-buying junkets that the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff arranged for members of Congress,” Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer who was director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service, told the Times.

Pearson isn’t the only large corporation with ties to top education department officials. This month, Wright will travel to Moscow to attend the Russian International Space Olympics competition with six Virginia high school students. All expenses will be paid through a grant from the Verizon Foundation, according to the Times-Dispatch.