AG silent on state ed official and $32M testing contract

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Eric Schneiderman. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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ALBANY—After the New York Times investigated trips taken by top education officials that were paid for by the charitable arm of a major potential client, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched what turned out to be a two-year probe.

On Friday, Schneiderman announced the result: a $7.7 million settlement with Pearson Charitable Foundation, the philanthropic entity of education-publishing giant Pearson, Inc. The London-based corporation, which is the largest for-profit education company in the world, has a major stake in the U.S. market.

Glaringly missing from Schneiderman's report were the names of any of the education officials who took the trips in the original Times series. Those names included former New York education commissioner David Steiner.

Asked why the report ommitted the actions of the current and former public officials, Schneiderman's office responded that the investigation into their behavior had been inconclusive. A spokeswoman for the office told Capital that investigators "made no determinations" about whether the state Education Department's decision to award a $32 million contract to Pearson was influenced by a trip Steiner took that was paid for by the company's foundation.

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Schneiderman's investigation found ways in which the Pearson foundation used donations to secure profits for its corporate parent, including sponsoring U.S. and international education officials' trips to conferences around the world, as the Times had reported. Steiner, who is now the dean of School of Education at Hunter College, attended such a conference in London months before the education department awarded Pearson the five-year contract for math and English assessments. Reached by Capital, Steiner said he had no comment.

Schneiderman's office looked for a connection between Steiner attending the conference, which was paid for by the Council of Chief State School Officers but underwritten by the Pearson foundation, and the contract. A spokeswoman for the office said investigators didn't reach a conclusion but wouldn't offer more information.

In a news release Friday detailing the settlement, Schneiderman's office referred to “school officials” whose trips to the conferences were paid for, through the school group, by the charity. The release doesn't name names.

“School officials who were invited were from jurisdictions where Pearson actively did business and sought to do business,” according to the release. “The travel and lodging expenses of state school officials from the U.S. were paid for by the organization of school officials, using funds donated by Pearson Charitable Foundation. In addition, the Foundation independently sponsored the travel and lodging of guest speakers, presenters and summit delegates, including school officials, from foreign countries.”

Education department officials did not return a request for comment. The department has stressed that the contract was awarded under the state's standard procurement procedures.

Steiner told the New York Times in December 2011 that there was “zero link” between his trip and the contract and that his travel to the conference had been approved by ethics officers at the education department.

“I followed exactly our rules and protocols,” he told the Times then. “I still believe it was a useful and informative and professional activity that had been properly cleared.”

Critics questioned whether Steiner's London trip led him to accept Pearson's bid for the 2011 contract, under which the testing company is responsible for developing math and English exams for elementary and middle-school students. Those tests came under scrutiny in recent years when teachers and students discovered a litany of errors, including questions with ambiguous answers or more than one correct answer and incorrect translations on foreign-language versions.

Last school year, Pearson's tests were the first to be aligned to the controversial Common Core standards in New York. Proficiency rates plummeted on the harder exams, the quality of which was widely questioned by educators.

The testing contract is not the state's only agreement with Pearson. The education department also entered into a $1 million, five-year contract with Pearson in 2010 for creating field tests and a $6.2 million, three-year contract in 2012 for developing an online data portal.

The state Office of General Services has a $200,000 contract with the company for textbooks and other materials. Pearson is also creating new teacher-certification exams, but those are paid for by the students taking the tests.