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FSU Center Spent Public Money to Tout Feds' Policies

Ohanian Comment: Kudos to this reporter for following website links. I've long wondered why reporters didn't do this. One learns a lot from bedfellows. And look at who defends the payola: the Heritage Foundation.

A Florida State University center has used more than a half-million in education tax dollars to put a positive spin on President Bush's key school policies, including hiring a public relations firm to teach charter schools to be more media-savvy.

Despite conflicting studies on the success of charter schools and other alternative education programs, the School Choice Center at FSU touts them as ways to "increase student achievement, increase parental involvement, promote school improvement through constructive competition, and accomplish racial and ethnic diversity."

In recent weeks, federal agencies have acknowledged using tax dollars to pay columnists to push Bush policies, including the No Child Left Behind Act. Critics argue that using public money for media campaigns could be considered illegal.

Since 2003, taxpayers have given the center $627,567 as part of a 5-year, $1.2 million federal grant made available through the No Child Left Behind Act, which promotes school choice as a fix for failing public schools.

The center's mission is to make parents aware of all choice programs, including traditional magnet schools, expand the number of choice schools in the state, and help them "work the media" as was written in one of the PR firm's pamphlets.

But links on the center's Web site are almost entirely to studies and articles from conservative groups and strong school-choice proponents such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Education Reform and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

For example, a link to private-school voucher articles includes nine entries that provide positive news on the voucher movement, but no mention of the problems in Florida's three programs that have allowed hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to be misused or stolen.

Another link on charter schools includes a Manhattan Institute study showing some academic success from charters, but nothing on how 12.5 percent of Florida's charter schools were given F grades last year, compared with 1.3 percent of the traditional public schools.

The center also hired a Tallahassee public relations firm, Moore Consulting Group Inc., to help charter schools and private schools sell their product. The group was given $45,000 to create template advertisements for choice programs, hold workshops, and offer tips such as "Never lie" to editorial boards and "Never screw up on a slow news day."

Web site defended as informative

Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said using tax dollars to pay PR firms and publicize only the positive aspects of school choice is disingenuous to the public. He compared the tactic to the recent acknowledgments that media pundits were paid to promote federal programs, such as No Child Left Behind.

"I think this is an attempt to present one side of the story and make it appear as though it's an objective thing," Pudlow said. "The public would be wrong if they thought they could get an unbiased approach to this issue in the political climate we have today."

The reality is that school districts must offer choices under the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Web site is designed to help school districts inform parents about those choices, said Richard Kunkel, dean of FSU's college of education.

"It's not an academic debate about choice. It's a state-supported initiative to work with local school districts to help them help their citizens (as to) what choice options exist," Kunkel said Tuesday.

He said it would be inappropriate for the center's Web site to be a place of debate, of pros and cons, when school districts are required to provide choices. The No Child Left Behind Act requires poor schools that don't meet state standards two years in a row to allow their children to attend other public schools.

"This project is to help school districts, not to debate choice," Kunkel said.

While the cash for the grant to the school-choice program flows through the Florida Department of Education, officials at the state level said they have nothing to do with the grant or the School Choice Center.

Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, defended the center's use of No Child Left Behind money, saying there is a "guerrilla war" being waged between traditional public school advocates and reformers.

He compared the use of tax dollars to pay for a school choice marketing campaign to federal programs that publicize free and reduced-price lunch programs for children, or anti-smoking advertisements.

"If this is simply trying to rectify the imbalance of coverage and give a better idea of charter schools and how they work, it seems like it is OK," Franc said. "This could be a grant to get the other side of the story to the public."

The U.S. Department of Education has faced criticism in recent weeks for using tax dollars to pay conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to put a positive spin on the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Department of Education also has paid a public relations firm to rate the reporting of education writers on the No Child Left Behind Act so those with low scores could be targeted for "more education about the issue."

The Government Accountability Office has sent a letter to the Education Department asking for all materials related to its contract with Williams. Federal law bans the use of public money on propaganda without explicit congressional approval.

FSU's School Choice Center is part of the Center for Educational Research and Policy Studies, which houses several other centers and programs devoted to studying education policies.

Part of the School Choice Center's mission is to couple school districts with extensive choice plans, including magnet schools, with districts that have fewer choices to offer parents. It's also conducting a parent satisfaction survey on school choice and creating a database on what works best in school choice plans.

But the center also touts the relatively new phenomenon of school choice as the way to improve education, despite studies that show varying results.

'Not fulfilling the public mission'

Florida has several types of school-choice plans. The most controversial are charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to pay the tuition of students to private or religious schools. Last year, Florida had about 255 charter schools and 24,590 students using taxpayer funded vouchers to attend private schools.

One of Florida's voucher programs opportunity scholarships for children in failing schools has twice been found unconstitutional by the courts and now faces a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court.

Critics argue vouchers and charter schools rob traditional public schools of money. They complain now that using tax dollars to teach media skills and promote a one-sided view of school choice is doing the same.

"We are not fulfilling the public mission of creating good schools if we are spending money on public relations manuals and hiring PR firms," said Anjetta McQueen, spokesman for the National Education Association. "The thing is to stay focused. If we stay focused on qualified teachers, small classes, and up-to-date books, then we are fulfilling the mission of a good public education."

Staff writer Nirvi Shah contributed to this story.

— Kimberly Miller
Palm Beach Post


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