Report: Education Dept. funds need monitoring
Ohanian Comment: Kudos to Greg Toppo for exposing more PR for hire--with the U. S. Department of Education hiring special interest groups to write op eds praising NCLB.
By Greg Toppo
One Sunday last October, readers of The Dallas Morning News opened their newspapers to an angry op-ed penned by Marcela Garcini, a self-described "ninja parent" who took the Dallas school system to task for dragging its heels on No Child Left Behind, saying it was "limiting the future and opportunities for our children."
"I am tired of hearing excuses about the lack of funding for schools, particularly under No Child Left Behind," she said.
Garcini wanted readers to know that, thanks to NCLB, students in "failing" schools now had the right to transfer to better-performing schools. "It's time to say 'basta!' (stop!). Our children don't want, nor does any child deserve, to be left behind."
Appearing 23 days before the Nov. 2 election, her piece read like an ad for President Bush's 2002 education reform law, a cornerstone of his domestic policy. But what readers never knew was that, for all practical purposes, it was an ad — paid for, in part, by taxpayers, through a grant from the Bush administration.
In 2003 and 2004, Garcini's nonprofit group, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options (CREO), received two unsolicited grants, totaling $900,000, from the U.S. Education Department, to promote school choice and tutoring options for Hispanic children. But in two op-eds in the Morning News and a third that appeared in two Spanish-language publications earlier in 2004, Garcini never disclosed, as was required by law, that CREO had received the government grants.
Federal investigators probing the department's public relations contracts this week say the department has given nearly $4.7 million to groups including Garcini's to promote administration education priorities since 2002, but that in 10 of 11 cases examined, the groups didn't disclose — in print, on radio or in other media, such as brochures or handbooks — that taxpayer funds were used.
John Higgins, the department's Inspector General, found no "covert propaganda" at work, but told administration officials that they should consider asking for some of their money back.
"The Department of Education is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes covert propaganda," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the investigation.
"But this report shows that, in case after case after case, grantees — without disclosing who was paying them — took taxpayers' money and used it to promote controversial policies. Department officials allowed this practice to continue with such frequency and such consistency that they cannot now claim that they were ignorant that it was happening. Either the Department is grossly incompetent when it comes to awarding grants and contracts, or it is misleading investigators and engaging in a cover up of the misuse of taxpayer dollars."
According to the report, released late Thursday night on the Education Department's Web site, investigators also said the department needs to do a better job of monitoring how millions of dollars are spent. They found that more than $1.7 million went to outside PR contracts for which officials couldn't produce all of the materials, including one $1.6 million contract to ZGS Communications that Higgins still wants to review.
Among other disputed contracts were:
One for $631,775, awarded last October to the Cuban American National Council, which the report says had yet to produce anything.
One for $2,650, awarded to North American Precis Syndicate (NAPS), which produced what amounted to a 284-word infomercial for the National Center of Education Statistics Web site.
Overall, Higgins found that just over $7.7 million in grants and contracts were either properly notated with government disclaimers or produced products, such as reports, that weren't disseminated to the public.
He didn't directly fault Education Department personnel, finding that in several instances they had told groups that the disclaimers were required. But he noted a pattern of such deals, including one in which the department gave $1.3 million over three years to the Black Alliance for Educational Options for a "multi-layered media campaign." None of the materials had the required disclaimer, Higgins said.
In a response filed with the report, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings agreed with most of the findings, but disagreed with characterizations about Garcini's pieces. Spellings also said the department would review its recordkeeping practices and search both its records and ZGS's for materials related to the $1.6 million contract.
The findings come nearly five months after Higgins criticized the Education Department for its $240,000 contract with prominent black commentator Armstrong Williams. That contract called for him to promote No Child Left Behind in op-ed columns and on his syndicated television show and to encourage others to do the same.
Since USA TODAY in January first reported on the Williams deal, several other agencies have admitted that freelance commentators wrote op-ed columns that promoted Bush administration policies on marriage and the environment without noting that they'd received government funds either to write the pieces or to support their interest groups.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES