A top Virginia education official is under fire for accepting overseas trips funded in part by the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a company with state contracts worth millions of dollars.
Patricia I. Wright, the state superintendent of public 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 foundation.
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 schools for over two decades, is supported by many organizations, including the foundation.
Wright serves on the council’s board of directors. She said in a statement last week that she followed all conflict-of-interest laws and that the overseas conferences “provide an opportunity for American education policymakers to meet with their international counterparts.”
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, Wright singled out the company for building “on a partnership that has made the Commonwealth of Virginia a national leader.”
Pearson Foundation officials said 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.
Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, told The Times the arrangement seemed similar a practice in which industry groups bankroll vacation getaways for members of Congress. “If we want that kind of corruption in education, we’re fools,” Jennings was quoted as saying.
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.