Bush Gift for School Technology Raises Ethical Questions
Former first lady directed donation to son’s firm.
A charitable donation by former first lady Barbara Bush to buy products from her son’s educational software company has cast a spotlight on the ethical questions for schools that can accompany contributions from high-profile benefactors.
At issue is a recently publicized $25,000 donation that the Bush family matriarch made to a local Hurricane Katrina relief fund in Houston—on the condition that most of the money be spent on products from Austin, Texas-based Ignite Learning Inc., founded and chaired by her son Neil. Eight schools spread across the Houston, Alvin, Pearland, Katy, and Spring school districts in Texas accepted the social studies or science product, called Curriculum on Wheels.
The donation came to light in the Houston Chronicle late last month, when Fleming Middle School in Houston held an event to thank Mrs. Bush for her donation. The school band played, a regional superintendent from the district gave a plaque to the former first lady, and several students displaced by Katrina spoke of how they enjoyed using the Ignite Learning software.
But Mrs. Bush’s donation and the subsequent school rally have left some educators and philanthropy experts concerned. They see Mrs. Bush’s action as opportunistic, and the districts’ acceptance of the products as reflecting questionable judgment.
Following the Money
The trajectory of a charitable gift by a former first lady has raised ethical questions for schools that benefited.
As businesses and schools increasingly work together, educators need to put in place guidelines on what donations to accept and under what conditions, said William T. Hartman, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. And if districts already have such policies, they must follow them, said Mr. Hartman, the author of the 2005 book Ethics for School Business Officials.
“The first problem is when these donations dictate important educational decisions that are the province of the school district, the administration, and the teachers,” he said.
Mr. Hartman also questioned the Houston district’s “activity in promoting a company product, which presumably has competitors,” during Mrs. Bush’s visit to the school.
HISD policy prohibits schools from promoting “the merit of a brand name or trademarked products.” Fleming Middle School’s event did not violate that policy, according to a district spokeswoman.
The 210,300-student Houston school system is no stranger to Ignite Learning. The district piloted the product in five schools in 2002 and put them in another 17 schools in 2003.
Curriculum on Wheels, or COW, as it’s commonly called, is a stand-alone hardware and software system. It includes a projector and speakers and contains science or social studies curriculum materials, or both, for elementary or middle schools. The devices cost from $3,500 to $4,200.
Kenneth Leonard, the president of Ignite Learning, said last week that neither the company, which Neil Bush started in 1999, nor Mrs. Bush had done anything improper. He added that had the person making the donation been less well-known, no one would have questioned it.
“The transparency and the method of how the donation was conducted stands up to really any arm’s-length measure of normal philanthropic purposes,” he said. “People will rush in to conclude that, ‘My gosh, there must be something wrong with this,’ and in actuality, there wasn’t.”
Daniel Borochoff, the president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Chicago-based charity-watchdog group, warned against donations with strings attached.
“Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s a green light to accept it,” he said. “It can cost you more.”
Mrs. Bush donated the money to the Bush-Clinton Houston Hurricane Relief Fund last fall, according to Jim McGrath, a spokesman for her and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush. The fund is a local spinoff of a national relief fund launched under the aegis of Mr. Bush and former President Bill Clinton after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August.
The former first lady stipulated that the donation primarily pay for COW equipment, which would then be given to Houston-area schools with large numbers of students displaced by the hurricane.
“She was aware of the good work being done using the COW. …[The donation] would go towards these machines to help kids learn,” Mr. McGrath said.
‘Doing a Good Thing’
The Greater Houston Community Foundation, which administers the Bush-Clinton Houston Hurricane Relief Fund, channeled Mrs. Bush’s donation to the Scottish Space School Foundation USA, a small Houston-based nonprofit organization, according to Stephen D. Maislin, the president and chief executive officer of the community foundation. He said she made the donation to the local hurricane-relief initiative, which has raised almost $1 million to date, to “get publicity” for that fund.
Tom Deliganis, Ignite Learning’s vice president of school sales and results, suggested the the Scottish Space School Foundation as the recipient of Mrs. Bush’s donation, said Hyang Lloyd, the founder of the school foundation. The group has loose ties to the Glasgow, Scotland-based organization of the same name, which encourages student interest in math and science careers. Mr. Deliganis has mentored some students involved with the program, according to Ms. Lloyd and Mr. Leonard.
Ms. Lloyd agreed because she would be helping disadvantaged students, she said, and because Mr. Deliganis said the modestly funded SSFU could retain roughly $900 of the donation in exchange for its participation. The SSFU then purchased the Ignite Learning product for the eight area schools.
“We thought we were doing a good thing,” Ms. Lloyd said. “I saw no harm in any form or fashion.”
Vol. 25, Issue 31, Page 12Published in Print: April 12, 2006, as Bush Gift for School Technology Raises Ethical Questions