A state spokeswoman on Tuesday defended recent international trips by Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday that were financed by a foundation associated with a company that does business with the Kentucky Department of Education.
The New York Times in a story on Sunday questioned such trips by Holliday and other top U.S. educators that were funded by the Pearson Foundation. The story quoted critics suggesting that the trips were junkets that might raise ethical issues for those involved.
Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said Holliday took trips to international education conferences in China in May and Brazil in September, financed by the Pearson Foundation. The foundation is associated with Pearson Inc., a major national publishing company that received a $57.7 million, seven-year state contract to prepare the new K-Prep student test and perform related work. Kentucky students will take the K-Prep for the first time next spring. It replaces the old Kentucky Core Content test.
Holliday was joined by education leaders from other states on the China and Brazil trips. The trips were organized through the Council of Chief State School Officers, made up of the top education officials in each state. Holliday is a council director.
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Holliday was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Gross said the Pearson Inc. contract was awarded through Kentucky's state procurement process, and Holliday was not involved. One education department employee was part of a 12-member review team that worked on the selection, she said.
"Everything we did on this, I think, was aboveboard," Gross said.
The New York Times story said some experts think the Pearson organization might be using its foundation's funding of such trips to boost its education-related business, which could violate the federal tax code.
Marcus Owens, an attorney and former IRS official, told the 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."
The Times also noted that Iowa's Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board was looking into whether a Pearson-financed trip to Brazil by Iowa Education Commissioner Jason Glass violated state law.