Monday, November 7, 2011

Hijacking Texas Education Funds Through the Guise of "Privatization"

News reports have been hammering our brains for the last year or so about how Texas must cut 3-to-5 Billion (with a capital “B”) dollars from “Education.” Of course, there's rarely any specifics about where these cuts are made.  The cuts are just made and then left to the agencies and school districts to figure out how to deal with it.

At the same time that this budgeting fiasco has been going on, Texas has gone through some highly public battles with the school board over textbook rewrites and the state embarked on a major overhaul of their standardized testing system. So, out with the TAKS and in with the “more rigorous” STAAR and EOC (End-Of-Course) Examination system.  As well, add in the massive spending involved in an attempt to set up a state-wide online curriculum and testing system. Through it all, one name keeps popping up: Pearson Education. 

The Texas ObserverYou may wonder who that is?  According to Abby Rapoport in The Texas Observer, “Pearson is a London-based mega-corporation that owns everything from the Financial Times to Penguin Books, and also dominates the business of educating American children.”

In fact, The Texas Observer did an outstanding job of laying out some of the details and reasons why Texas taxpayers (and basically anyone in other states where Pearson is found) should be alarmed at their lobbying efforts. I recommend everybody read the article in full. My conclusion is that the people's call for “privatizing” the school system seems to have been misconstrued intentionally into a massive intertwining of government funds (meaning: TAXPAYER DOLLARS) with a massive FOR-PROFIT CORPORATION in a way that could only make Halliburton smile with understanding.

Calls for privatizing the education system are rarely demands to funnel tax money into the coffers of private corporations. Calls for privatization are calls to remove government from the system, thus returning all tax monies to the individual citizens, and allowing the free market to function. The individual citizens decide to whom and where to funnel the money...or not.

That is privatization. 

What the Texas Education Agency, Texas legislators, and the hundreds of for-profit corporations, like Pearson, are doing is a bastardization of the concept mostly done on the down-low while everyone in the media is distracted by the ridiculous nit-picky backbiting at the State Board of Education over what goes in and out of Texas textbooks.

You might ask why would I pick on Pearson so strongly. Is it just because The Texas Observer says I should?

Well, I did some digging just to see where our tax money was actually going in terms of “Education” and specifically in regards to Pearson. This was accomplished by visiting which bills itself with this sub-line: “Open government is accountable government: a clear look at your tax dollars at work in Texas.” Unfortunately, it may be “clear,” but it most definitely is not easy to maneuver. They have the site rigged up in such a way that the information is there but in terms of ease of access – frustrating. The drop-down stair-step approach to the searches and the slow searching script and the unavailability of multiple searching within one session make it very difficult to get a straight and “clear” set of numbers. The numbers don't necessarily always quite add up either. Let me explain...

I first decided to search by “Vendor.” I typed “Pearson” into the search engine. It brought up all these as separate vendors within the system:

Pearson Ed/Prentice Hall
NCS Pearson
NCS Pearson Inc
NCS Pearson D/B/A Harland Technology/Scantron
NCS Pearson Inc (yes, again, which makes no sense)
NCS Pearson Incorporated
Pearson Education
Pearson Education Inc
Pearson Evaluation Systems
Pearson NCS Inc

I had to Google each of them to confirm it, but, yes, each one of these is the same company. I have to suspect that there is some shenanigans going on that allows a surface-level look through funding to miss the various payments going to the same corporate entity over the years because of different naming conventions per department.  I am not even going to get into the amount of grant money that gets poured into the Pearson Foundation which is also an active part of all of this curriculum and standards development process. Maybe another time.

I'm going to round these big numbers for ease of discussion, but I did a vendor search for “Pearson Ed/Prentice Hall” and all it showed was a 2008 TEA expenditure of $32 million. Whoa. That's a big number. But in terms of the Texas Budget, where 2011 Fiscal Year salary expenditures are $67 million, it isn't shocking.

So, I ran a vendor search for “Pearson Education Inc” and it showed expenditures from 2008-2012 of $54,500 and none of it went to the TEA. At this point, I'm thinking that maybe The Texas Observer is overblowing the issue. Then, however, I did the vendor search for “Pearson Education” which showed a 2010 fiscal year expenditure of $122 million! Almost twice the total for the entire salary budget in 2011! The 2011 and 2012 payments to Pearson Education are $49 million and $68 million respectively.

Now that's a lot of money.

I was curious about comparing numbers with other vendors which means I had to go search by Agency and then scroll page by page alphabetically to get a handle on it. It is very inconsistent as to how the money is distributed, but it falls under the category of “Professional Services and Fees.” Total expenditures for that category in 2010: $176 million; 2011: $174 million; and 2012: $242 million. In a time of a budget crisis where the state is supposed to be cutting $3-to-$5 billion from the education budget, somehow the “Professional Service and Fees” category jumps from $174 million to $242 million. I have no idea why and it would take someone with more ability to maneuver deeply into the minutiae of the budget to fully explain that.

Let's look at some of these totals that I can get a handle on.

I tackled just one other category, that of "Intergovernmental Payments" -- a category that made me go "Huh?".  In 2010, the total of "Intergovernmental Payments" was $24 billion! Of that amount, $514 million was allotted for textbooks. Of that amount, everyone got hundreds, thousands, or maybe a couple of million of dollars each except for McGraw-Hill and Pearson. McGraw-Hill got $148 million and Pearson got $122 million. This is just textbooks. Under “Professional Service and Fees,” Pearson got another $90 million, something called Educational Testing Service got $20 million, and The Grow Network/McGraw-Hill got $4.5 million. Nobody else even came close. Just in these 2 categories...

Pearson walked away with a lottery jackpot of well over $200 million in 2010.

Looking at the current year, 2011, Pearson was paid $87 million from the $174 million total budgeted for “Professional Service and Fees” and they received $49 million from the $119 million budgeted for textbooks. The next closest are Houghton Mifflin with $25 million and McGraw-Hill with $27 million. Pearson also inexpicably received an extra $3.5 million under the “NCS Pearson” name. However, that payout only shows up when you run an "Agency" search and scroll through the pages. It does not show up if you run a "Vendor" search.  All other competitors aren't even close. 

 In total, that means in 2011 Pearson is being paid a minimum of $139.5 million.

And remember, as The Texas Observer correctly observed, it is Pearson who “holds a five-year contract worth nearly $500 million to create and administer exams. If students should fail those tests, Pearson offers a series of remedial-learning products to help them pass. Meanwhile, kids are likely to use textbooks from Pearson-owned publishing houses like Prentice Hall and Pearson Longman. Students who want to take virtual classes may well find themselves in a course subcontracted to Pearson. And if the student drops out, Pearson partners with the American Council on Education to offer the GED exam for a profit.”

Essentially, they control the creation of the Standards, the creation of the testing materials and mechanism of testing, the test preparation materials, and then they even control the GED prep and testing materials for those students who don't pass.

And we, as taxpayers, are okay with this?

I think it's time for the people to stand up and stop fixating on whether a science teacher is allowed to utter the word “God” in a classroom and look to the real problem here...and it goes back down the money trail to the lobbyists and our elected officials who are listening to the loudest voice with the deepest pockets.  If we are going to "privatize" the educational system, then damn well "privatize" it and get rid of the State control.  However, if we are going to maintain a free public education system financed through public dollars, I think we need to pressure our officials to stop creating a defacto monopoly system for-profit from our tax dollars.  As a parent of a child in that system, I expect that in a time of financial crisis that the place we would stop the flow of money would be to these corporations and redirect it to those who are in the trenches and actually teaching our children.

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