Education Opinion

Teacher Highlights Washington Post Conflict of Interest in Education Arena

By Anthony Cody — April 30, 2013 5 min read
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A teacher who uses the name “chemtchr” has forwarded to me a column she had submitted in October of 2010 to Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who indicated he would publish it on his blog.

But it never ran. Six months later he wrote her saying “This has become not my story but a business story.” He apparently sent it along to a reporter in the business section, and that was the last that was heard on the subject. The Washington Post Corporation has never made a disclosure of the extent of its financial involvement with corporate education reform. Although the corporate ties to Kaplan are well known to reform business interests, they are not considered relevant to coverage of education politics.

The Education Writers Association convenes at Stanford this week, with record attendance by journalists excited by the theme of “Creativity Counts: Innovation in Education and the Media.” I hope there will be serious consideration given to the ethical dimensions of journalism, and the serious conflicts of interest when “innovations” intersect with our duty to report the news without favoring moneyed interests.

Here is the story as submitted more than two years ago. The broken links have been replaced with contemporary versions, and the Kaplan Virtual Education webpage is a screenshot. Given what we now know about the very weak coverage the Washington Post has given to the apparently rampant cheating that was unfolding under DC chancellor of schools Michelle Rhee at the time, one has to wonder if the financial interests of the Post had an impact on their coverage and editorial stance.

The Washington Post Corporation’s For-Profit Involvement in the DC Public Schools

By chemtchr.

I am taking this opportunity to share my concern about the Washington Post Corporation’s lack of disclosure of its heavy financial interest in elementary and secondary public schools, through its wholly-owned for-profit subsidiary, Kaplan K12 Learning Services.

Kaplan K12 Learning Services is a for-profit private company which does extensive business with the public school system of the District of Columbia. It also sells online “virtual” elementary and high school programs to public districts all over the country. It operates publicly funded, for-profit online elementary and secondary charter schools, statewide in six states. Kaplan has recently moved to increase its investment in services that are mandated by the Race to the Top competition. It is actively investing in “compliance” services.

It aims to provide, at a profit, the expensive data monitoring and management services required to implement “value added” teacher pay formulas.

At the same time as the Post Corporation’s Kaplan arm is marketing products to public K-12 education, the Post’s editorial and journalistic arm is heavily involved in political advocacy.

It promotes policies and individual public officials which directly affect Kaplan K12’s profits. The Post has never disclosed its financial interest in Kaplan K12 Learning, which is a separate division from its Kaplan Higher Education. The Post was forced to disclose that it operates chains of for-profit online colleges and satellite campuses, while its editor is actively lobbying against reform of the industry. It now praises itself for its openness, but disclosure only came after a federal sting operation shut down several of its campuses for outright fraud.

During all the discussion of Kaplan, the newspaper has still never disclosed the financial interests of the other branches of its for-profit Kaplan subsidiaries, in public elementary and secondary schools.

The Post editors waste our time and energy in their editorials, presenting their own motivation in “education reform” as entirely disinterested. They attack opponents of their for-profit business expansion as defenders of the “status quo”, who are opposed to “innovations” to “transform” American education. The reality is that the education policies promoted by the Post drain desperately needed resources, and are destructive of the educational mission itself. Research shows that virtual charter schools are educational disasters. Parents, however, are unaware that the Washington Post Corporation is selling its own tax-funded online charter schools while it closes their neighborhood schools.

Note: Kaplan sold its virtual charter business to K12inc in 2011.

The people of the District of Columbia are unaware of the conflict of interest, because the Washington Post has not disclosed that its political protegee, Michelle Rhee, purchases products from its wholly owned subsidiary, Kaplan K12 Learning Service, with public education funds.

The Kaplan K12 web page for DC includes this notice:
“Please note that Kaplan K12 only sells its programs to districts and schools.”
(original 2010 link replaced with services currently offered for sale to DC schools by the Washington Post Corporation )

The situation in DC is replicated across the nation, in low-income districts which can least afford to have their limited education budgets and federal Title I allotments bled off for private profit. Politically connected vendors hold fundraisers for politicians. Mayors take direct control of public school budgets, and place administrators they call “CEOs” as superintendents and principals in city schools. These public administrators are often selected by “non-profit” foundations linked to for-profit providers of system analysis, data management, and compliance monitoring, like Microsoft and Xerox. Officials answer to their for-profit “partners”, and not to the people they serve.

Administrators charged with overseeing the welfare of public schools are instead organized into “public private partnerships”, without the knowledge of the public, in every state. As in DC, Kaplan promotes its own profits through undisclosed “partnerships” with public superintendents and administrators.

It is a grave danger to public interest when major news providers are so secretly and utterly given over to promoting hidden business interests that maintain their corporate cash-flow. This is especially true for business models that involve capture of government regulatory powers, to mandate expenditures of vast amounts of public money. The Post has deliberately abused the public trust, by its failure to disclose these important conflicts of financial interest.

What do you think? Is there evidence of a conflict of interest here? Should the Washington Post disclose its money-making ventures in the schools when covering education issues?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.