Free trips not worth the price

Lu Young, superintendent of schools in Jessamine County, is a respected professional who was named Kentucky's superintendent of the year in 2011. So, to many of her admirers here in Kentucky, it was a surprise and a shame her name appeared at the top of a story in the first section of The New York Times.

It was not because of her accomplishments as an educator but to recount a trip she took that illustrates the ethical muddy waters stirred up by the extremely close relationship between Pearson Education Inc. and the Pearson Foundation.

The story, reprinted in the Herald-Leader, evoked defensive praise for Young and scorn of the Times and its reporting. There's no reason to believe Young did anything wrong, but criticizing the messenger won't make this go away. The suspicion of unethical dealing will persist until educators stop taking trips paid for by companies that stand to make money selling products and services to their institutions.

Briefly, Young went to Australia with other educators on a trip organized by an education nonprofit and paid for by the Pearson Foundation. A few months later, back in Kentucky, she participated in a panel that interviewed executives of education companies, including Pearson, that were bidding to run Kentucky's testing program.

Although its bid was $2 million higher than the low bidder, CTB/McGraw Hill, Pearson got the contract.

The Times had reported earlier that Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday had taken similar trips, to China and Brazil, after his department approved the $57-million contract with Pearson.

Pearson protests that the foundation is simply a way of returning money to education and that educators benefit from meeting colleagues from other countries and seeing what they're doing.

No argument here that our education system can gain from a broader view. But the links between the two Pearsons are too close for comfort. Here are some of the connections that have been reported:

1. The company controls the foundation's board of directors;

2. At least one person is an officer of both the company and the foundation;

3. They have the same address.

4. Although Pearson Education executives have attended the education conferences subsidized by Pearson Foundation money, no representatives of other education companies have been identified on the lists of attendees.

We make no case that either Young or Holliday did anything wrong. Both say the trips had no bearing on the contract. But, this is the thing: The contract wasn't let solely on price, nor should it have been. Educational testing is a complex business, so there's a significant element of judgment involved in evaluating the bidder's services.

No less an expert than Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist in Washington, explained last week in Frankfort, how judgment can become clouded by gifts and hospitality,

The (Louisville) Courier-Journal's account of Abramoff's talk includes this:

"Lawmakers never believe they will be bought, Abramoff added. But he warned that lobbyists become successful by building relationships and that gifts or contributions are designed to take advantage of a person's natural instincts to express gratitude. 'When somebody does something good for you, you are going to have to feel that way in your soul, and when you do I would hold that that is the problem,' he said,"

We'll go even a step further. Even if a cozy relationship doesn't lead to a problem, the appearance of the relationship will lead to suspicion that a problem does or could exist. Our ethics laws are intended not only to avoid corruption but the appearance of it because both destroy public confidence in government.

Nothing is more important to Kentucky than public education, which relies on public support. These trips aren't worth the price in public confidence. Educators should stop taking them.