Educators and education groups are weighing whether to cut off support for Pennies for Peace after allegations surfaced that the best-selling author who founded the program mismanaged money collected by thousands of schoolchildren.
In the wake of financial allegations about Greg Mortenson, and challenges to the veracity of his nonfiction book Three Cups of Tea, several schools have already decided to withhold their contributions until the matter is resolved, and at least one district has chosen not to make any more donations to the Central Asia Institute, which runs Pennies for Peace.
The CBS news program “60 Minutes” broadcast allegations last month that Mr. Mortenson, the executive director of the Central Asia Institute, fabricated two major stories about himself in the book, one of which has been a jumping-off point for students to collect money to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The news program also alleged that in 2009, the Bozeman, Mont.-based nonprofit institute spent less on schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan than on “programs” in the United States, including activities to promote Three Cups of Tea and another of Mr. Mortenson’s books, Stones Into Schools.
A 75-page e-book, Three Cups of Deceit, written by the journalist Jon Krakauer and published last month, contends that Mr. Mortenson’s books and public statements are “permeated with falsehoods.” The e-book maintains that Mr. Mortenson has misled schoolchildren through his promotion of the Pennies for Peace program. It says, for example, that in 2009, students donated $1.7 million to Pennies for Peace, but that the Central Asia Institute spent only $612,000 on building or supporting schools. The e-book notes that Mr. Mortenson says in public appearances that “every penny” of every donation supports schools.
Mr. Mortenson has “repeatedly subverted efforts by his Montana-based staff to track effectively how many schools have been built, how much each school actually costs, and how many schools are up and running,” Mr. Krakauer writes.
In an email to Education Week, Anne Beyersdorfer, a spokeswoman for the Central Asia Institute, said every penny collected by schoolchildren goes to schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She said students raised $2.5 million through Pennies for Peace in 2009 and 2010. The income and expenditures reported by Mr. Krakauer for 2009 are correct, she said, but added that “the balance remains in the Pennies for Peace fund for use as new schools are built, and educational needs are determined by communities we serve.”Ms. Beyersdorfer included a statement that is part of the institute’s standard response to inquiries about how it has handled donations: “The CAI board of directors and senior management team have determined that a very thorough, transparent, and objective assessment of CAI’s programs and operations is needed, and we are taking steps to define that process and begin.”
Montana’s attorney general, Steve Bullock, has launched an inquiry into the operations of the Central Asia Institute. “While looking into this issue, my office will not jump to any conclusions—but we have a responsibility to make sure charitable assets are used for their intended purposes,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Mortenson didn’t grant an interview to “60 Minutes” or to Mr. Krakauer, but he said in a question-and-answer piece published by Outside magazine April 18, the day after the “60 Minutes” broadcast, that inaccuracies in his books are in part a result of condensing the time when some events took place.
The Washington-based National Education Association Foundation is among groups that have promoted Pennies for Peace. Along with the Pearson Foundation, the NEA Foundation supported the creation of a curriculum and “toolkit” that teachers have used to accompany students’ reading of books by Mr. Mortenson and fundraising for Pennies for Peace.
Harriet Sanford, the president and chief executive officer of the foundation, said the philanthropy, an arm of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, gave Pennies for Peace a $10,000 planning grant in 2007 to make the toolkit but hasn’t given any money since then.
John I. Wilson, the executive director of the NEA, said in an interview that he would discuss with Ms. Sanford the possible suspension of the union’s promotion of Pennies for Peace. He added: “I think there is enough out there [raising questions] to justify a suspension, but we’re not wiling to throw them under the bus yet. We don’t know the motives of folks who are making these allegations.”
As a first step, he said, the NEA might remove links on its website to Pennies for Peace and later decide whether to withdraw its stamp of approval. Late last week, the NEA still had the links on its website.
Checking the Facts
Mr. Wilson’s advice to teachers who are backing students in fundraising is to “finish the project but hold on to the money.”
That’s the plan that the Bluffview Montessori School in Winona, Minn., decided to follow last week in wrapping up its spring campaign to support Pennies for Peace.
Leslie Hittner, the director of operations for the 250-student school, said he supported the continued fundraising after talking with a town resident, Tim Hatfield, who has known Greg Mortenson and his family for more than 40 years. Mr. Hatfield wrote a letter to the editor of the Winona Daily News saying that while he wouldn’t be surprised if the Central Asia Institute has had some financial mismanagement, he doesn’t believe Mr. Mortenson has “a dishonest bone in his body.”
Mr. Hittner wrote in an email to Education Week: “All of the collected money is being held in a bank account until September. If the situation with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute has not been cleared up by that time, the money will be given to unicef.”
Central Elementary School in Wilmette, Ill., is also holding on to more than $1,200 raised by students for Pennies for Peace until it gets what the principal deems is a sufficient response from Mr. Mortenson, the Chicago Tribune reported last week.
But at least one district, Community Consolidated School District 181 in the Chicago area, has decided not to give any more money to the institute, and the district also pulled Three Cups of Tea from its reading program in middle schools, according to the newspaper.
Among the materials in the toolkit is a curriculum resource guide that takes for granted the truth of Mr. Mortenson’s story about how he got involved in building schools in Pakistan. Three Cups of Tea, co- authored by Mr. Mortenson and journalist David Oliver Relin, says he stumbled into the village of Korphe while weak and lost after trying to climb the Himalayan mountain of K2, was nursed back to health by villagers, and then departed. He returned to Korphe as soon as he could arrange a ride, the story continues, and promised to build the villagers a school. That story gets a lot of play in Three Cups of Tea, which was published in 2006, and the gist of it is repeated in a version of the book for young readers that is widely read in schools.
But Mr. Krakauer says that Mr. Mortenson didn’t visit Korphe until a year after his climbing expedition and that, in fact, he initially promised to build a school in the village of Khane in Pakistan but never delivered on that promise. Instead, Mr. Mortenson built a school in Korphe.
Mr. Mortenson stood by his story that he visited Korphe on the way back from climbing K2 in his interview with Outside, but said that the first visit was for only a few hours, though the book gives the impression he stayed overnight. Mr. Mortenson said in the magazine interview that during his second visit to Korphe, a year later, he talked with the village leader about a school, while the book gives the impression he returned almost immediately.
After further investigation, Outside reported in an April 27 blog post that the “revised Korphe account has serious problems.”
Comprehension questions and answers in the Pennies for Peace curriculum guide include the following: “How did Dr. Greg end up in Korphe? (He wanted to climb the mountain K2, but lost his way.) How did the villagers help Dr. Greg? How did Dr. Greg help the villagers? (They nursed Dr. Greg back to health. Dr. Greg helped to heal the sick of Korphe.)”
When Education Week asked the Pearson Foundation, whose logo is on the guide, whether it is continuing to support Pennies for Peace, a spokeswoman sent an email saying that Three Cups of Tea is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, which is owned by Pearson.
The statement said: “Greg Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. ‘60 Minutes’ is a serious news organization, and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.”
Where It Started
Tom Westerhaus is the superintendent of the 3,000-student River Falls school district, in Wisconsin, where the Pennies for Peace program got started. He said in a phone interview late last month that students at Westside Elementary School in his district began collecting pennies for the Central Asia Institute to build schools when Mr. Mortenson’s mother, Jerene Mortenson, was principal there. He said Mr. Mortenson spoke to students in the school. The institute says that happened in 1994. The teaching staff made the decision to support the project, Mr. Westerhaus said.
Just this spring, Mr. Westerhaus said, children in his district raised money for Pennies for Peace, which was passed on to the organization. He recalls it was less than $1,000.
Mr. Westerhaus has watched the “60 Minutes” report, but he said he’s still reserving judgment on whether the Central Asia Institute has misused funds. Should children from his district collect money in the future, he said, it will be his responsibility to be sure the money is “well handled.”
In a column posted on the district’s website last month, Mr. Westerhaus wrote: “I personally believe that good work has been done by Mortenson to promote the education of Pakistani and Afghan children by Pennies for Peace. My expectation is that the money we’ve raised is being used for building schools, but if I find out differently, we will definitely have to reconsider our involvement with the program.”
Mr. Wilson of the NEA observed that many people have been touched by the book Three Cups of Tea and Mr. Mortenson’s work because “it’s a great story and a great cause.” He said he hopes the mission is salvaged from the current controversy.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week as Education Community Rethinks ‘Pennies for Peace’ Support