Thursday, August 5, 2010

Local educational software company gets statewide contract AFTER making $12,000 in campaign donations in 2009

There was a nice article on KSL a few weeks ago about Imagine Learning software helping non-English speaking students learn the language. It's not a rigorous piece with one school's personnel and a company representative giving a glowing review of the program. But notice the small paragraph near the bottom:
Utah lawmakers funded a statewide license for this program, so any Utah school can address this growing need without hurting its budget.
Now I am not commenting on the effectiveness of this program. I have no experience with it and hope it is truly awesome. I often work with students learning English and any effective tool would be great.

However, I am concerned with the process. Why did this software company get a "statewide license?" This generally means any school in the state can sign up for the program and the state budget will cover the individual licenses, so basically a no-limit contract. How much is each individual student license? How many schools with how many eligible students have signed up? When was this passed? If it was in the 2010 session, I didn't hear anything about it and I followed the education budget debates closely. There have been crushing debates for two years in a row as the recession has killed public education budgets. The cuts have gotten deeper, class sizes are going up while other services are getting axed, and the projections for next year are for even more cuts. Legislators, schools, and the public debated about which "pet projects" and programs to fund and which to get rid of. Music, art, busses, science programs, merit pay plans, pension cuts, etc. have all been part of the debate.

I think that debate is legitimate and necessary in the rough economic climate. I just wonder if Imagine Learning was part of that debate or just slipped in somewhere. I have searched the three base education funding bills from the 2010 session, SB 2, HB 1, and HB 4, and I can find no mention of funding for Imagine Learning or English language software.

Making the matter even more murky are the large campaign contributions made in 2009 by Imagine Learning to key legislative leaders, especially conservative leaders. The August financial disclosure for 2009 showed donations to Senate President Michael Waddoups and Merlynn Newbold, education base budget sponsor and common co-sponsor of Howard Stephenson's bills. Imagine Learning's year-end financial disclosure for 2009 revealed donations to heavyweights: Greg Hughes of the House Education committee, Ron Bigelow--Chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee, $1,000 to Howard Stephenson--member of the Senate Education Committee and 2 interim education committees (and influential lobbyist), and $5,000 to Gary Herbert.

At the very, very least, this creates the perception of "Pay to Play." Make donations to the right people--maybe conservative lawmakers who usually oppose funding to education programs they are not personally sponsoring--and get a lucrative, statewide contract. That perception is real whether Imagine Learning is a wonderful program or a sham.

The donations are large and uncommon in the industry. I scanned the entire list of corporations that filed state financial disclosures for 2009 and didn't see any other company selling educational material--correct me if I'm wrong. (And for fun, go through the list and look at the donations from your favorite or least favorite company. The nearly $300,000 spent by Energy Solutions on both parties in 2008 and 2009 is especially impressive. All these corporations are spending tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars because of their civic mindedness, not because they expect anything from the legislators. Right ethics reform opponents?)

Really, does anyone think Red Meat Radio Howard Stephenson would support funding a statewide, educational software contract in a terrible budget year if these donations were not made? The bright minds at Imagine Learning spent $12,000 in profits without expecting influence and return on investment? It's a happy coincidence that the last educational software program to heavily lobby the legislature also got a large contract directly from Howard Stephenson in 2008?



banders said...

Wow. I'm impressed with your thorough research and explanation. Thanks for providing it. As I have come to understand it, one motivation for an increased investment in learning software is a decreased investment in personnel. I think Stephenson and others view Imagine Learning as one more way to stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap, and still make AYP in every subgroup. Of course the idea is ludicrous, but I think it appeals to that certain set of conservative legislators who view teachers as overpriced classroom furniture, and not really necessary.

Anonymous said...

...and now, Stephenson has proposed a bill that could potentially send over 60% of schools' WPU's to out-of-state, for-profit companies (and that sounds a whole lot like what the K12 corporation proposed to the state office of education last year). It would take the money away from local districts and schools. Also, ironically, he is touting it as a way to expand students' online opportunities, but it includes limits on how many online classes a student can take without getting permission from the local district.... yes, that same local district who would have to give up funding to pay for the online classes. (I tried to log in to leave my identity, but couldn't get it to work.)