A new report ominously warns that education-based businesses are interested in education policies. Conspiracy mongers should brace themselves. What follows are a few other “secrets.”
Oklahoma's oil and gas companies take an active interest in energy policies. Optometrists are concerned about state regulation of their profession. Oklahoma teachers occasionally lobby for bills that impact their personal bank accounts (commonly referred to as a pay raise).
That self-interest plays a role in political engagement isn't news, but Washington, D.C.-based In the Public Interest desperately tries to suggest otherwise. The group, headed by a former AFL-CIO political director, argues that because former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush promotes national education reform, and experts from his Foundation for Excellence in Education have assisted state officials enacting policy changes, and the foundation's financial backers include some education vendors, then the whole enterprise must be a complex scheme to secretly enrich those vendors through an incredibly public process.
Like most conspiracy theories, this requires a massive suspension of disbelief.
In the Public Interest implies a conspiracy exists because Oklahoma state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi was once a guest of Louis A. Piconi, founder of Apangea Learning Inc., at an event held for Bush and then-Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett. And, although Apangea didn't fund Bush's foundation, the company did contribute to Bennett's campaign. Later, Apangea got an Oklahoma contract to run a pilot project — but only after winning a competitive bidding process.
So let's get this straight: In the Public Interest believes Apangea received an Oklahoma contract by contributing to an Indiana official? And the “preferential treatment” Apangea got was being required to compete against other vendors trying to undercut it on price and service? Isn't that what happens when no one has been bribed?
In the Public Interest notes that testing vendor Pearson donated to Bush's foundation; Pearson is in the third year of a four-year Oklahoma contract. This means the contract was signed during the tenure of former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, a Democrat with no ties to Jeb Bush. Is there anyone not involved in this conspiracy?
In the real world, bribery isn't so complex. In Skiatook, custodial vendor Rick Enos gave $10,000 in bribes to then-Skiatook Superintendent Gary Johnson so Enos could overcharge the district $570,000.
In comparison, In the Public Interest argues there's a coordinated “pay to play” scheme involving potentially thousands of people at the highest levels of numerous state governments. In some settings, publicly declaring the existence of such a “conspiracy” would be considered a sign of mental illness, not investigative journalism.
Sadly, some gullible souls actually buy into this twaddle. Outgoing Oklahoma City School Board Chairwoman Angela Monson touted IPI's report on Facebook, vowing “to KEEP big business OUT of OKC Public Schools.” Apparently, although three-fourths of Douglass High School seniors may not graduate this year, Monson's priority was to ensure that no one competent made money educating them.
The question isn't whether private companies contract with Oklahoma schools. In a system expending billions annually, they do — for everything from textbooks to architectural work. The question is whether contracting is above board and transparent.
In the Public Interest fails to show otherwise — unless you're the type who also believes President Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim sleeper agent.