Educators' deals under scrutiny

Partnerships between an educators group and several school vendors cause some critics to question the organization's ethical integrity.

December 26, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The National Alliance of Black School Educators was formed with this mission in mind: furthering the academic success of African-American children.

But in recent years, the country's largest organization of minority teachers and school administrators has come to serve another constituency as well: education companies seeking to do business with African-American school officials, particularly those in charge of large urban districts with millions to spend.

NABSE leaders, among them Prince George's schools Chief Executive Officer Andre J. Hornsby, have forged close partnerships with education vendors that use the group to form connections with administrators. In return, the companies reward the NABSE with commissions, donations and sponsorships of NABSE trips, parties and other events.

The group's leaders say its corporate partnerships are no different from those formed by other education organizations looking to pay for their activities. Other professional groups, they say, also encourage vendors to set up exhibition booths or sponsor events at conferences.

The NABSE "survives with the same modus operandi as other professional associations," said Deloris Saunders, president of the Washington-based group. "NABSE has not compromised anything in accepting money from companies. NABSE is not for sale."

But several of the NABSE's corporate partnerships go beyond having a company sponsor a luncheon or a reception, and extend to arrangements in which the group actively helps companies gain access to school officials - something other groups say they try to avoid.

Even as they defend the organization, some NABSE leaders acknowledge that the organization needs to reconsider relationships that may reflect on the integrity of its mission.

Examples of the NABSE's closer partnerships include:

A deal arranged in the late 1990s with three technology companies to take advantage of the federal E-rate program, which distributes $2.25 billion a year raised in telephone taxes to pay for Internet hook-ups in schools in poor neighborhoods. Under the deal, which is under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice, the NABSE recommended the companies - NEC-Business Network Solutions, Video Network Communications Inc. and IBM - to school officials seeking to take advantage of the E-rate program. In return, documents show, the NABSE received a commission from the companies, in violation of E-rate rules on use of funds.

"It seems like NABSE was being used by these businesses as a ... nonprofit type of veneer for getting into these schools," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat and member of a committee that held a hearing on the deal in September.

An alliance created this year with the education software company LeapFrog SchoolHouse under which it and the NABSE jointly hold seminars on the "Over-Representation of African-American Males in Special Education." The NABSE invites its members to the daylong seminars, but participants say the discussion soon moves into product presentations by LeapFrog salesmen.

A partnership created in 2002 with the education software company Plato Learning, which includes annual trips to South Africa for NABSE members. The trips are heavily subsidized by Plato and allow its executives to meet school officials.

Congressional hearing

The E-rate deal has been particularly troubling for the NABSE. At the congressional hearing in September, a superintendent from a rural South Carolina district said he went along with companies on a $10 million Internet project on the basis of the NABSE's recommendation. Later, the government disputed several million dollars of that amount, saying it was ineligible.

"With a reputable organization like NABSE, we just assumed that everything was OK," said Jasper County, S.C., schools chief William Singleton.

Some NABSE members, saying they believe strongly in the value of the 6,000-person group, acknowledged that it has to guard itself against being compromised by corporate ties.

"I don't see any problem ... if someone has used a product and can tell me if it's useful. But there's a fine line between providing information and acting as an agent for a company," said Cheryl Beaco, a New Orleans principal attending the NABSE's annual convention in November in Dallas.

Several NABSE leaders said that if any partnerships were perceived as crossing the line, those deals did not reflect the group's overall direction. They said some changes may be needed.

Lois Harrison-Jones, a former Boston superintendent who preceded Hornsby as president, said she saw nothing wrong in the organization's partnering with companies with products that had been shown to be effective. But she said she will recommend that the group re-evaluate the LeapFrog seminars to make sure their educational substance balanced out the commercial pitch.

And Saunders, the group's president, said the board would re-evaluate the Africa trips, which she believes may not be appropriate.

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