When film producer Zach Richter was looking for a way to publicize his documentary about a flourishing Connecticut charter school, he turned to Washington.
Mr. Richter passed along a rough cut of the movie to a contact at the U.S. Department of Education, where charter school advocates abound. He was encouraged to apply for a grant, and last summer, Mr. Richter’s company received $20,000 from the department, which he used to advertise the air dates of his documentary, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” on the Public Broadcasting Service.
Ads promoting the documentary, which aired in late summer, ran in newspapers such as The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle, Mr. Richter said.
“I’d like to think it was helpful,” he said, in attracting viewers.
Since President Bush came to town in 2001, the Education Department has taken aggressive and sometimes creative steps to promote its agenda to the public, including its support for school choice options such as charter schools and for Mr. Bush’s signature program, the No Child Left Behind Act.
Some of its promotional efforts have gone too far. Payments through a public relations firm to the commentator Armstrong Williams to plug the school law have caused enormous controversy and led to investigations.
The department has spent millions of dollars on public communications over the last four years, including for such gimmicks as a Web mascot—an eagle named Pablo—to appeal to Latino children; an ad in a tourist map of Washington; and radio spots that ran on hip-hop FM stations.
“The Department of Education does have a responsibility to get to the public with information about their programs to give people the fodder upon which to make decisions,” said Robert M. Steele, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.
But groups that help the government in such efforts “should not be deceptive in the way they pass along information . . . in terms of getting their point out,” he said.
Just this month, the agency’s inspector general found flaws with the department’s relationship with Mr. Williams for creating an appearance of impropriety when the pundit opined on the law without revealing he was receiving federal money.
The Education Department’s efforts to reach out to the public have taken a number of routes, including some that strike advertising experts as a bit mystifying.
In 2002, for example, the department ran ads featuring a grinning youngster at bat in each of three souvenir programs for Major League Baseball’s American League and National League championship series and the World Series. The magazine-like programs were published by the Clearwater, Fla.-based Corporate Sports Marketing Group. (See chart, this page.)
Tourists visiting Washington were also targeted by the department in its No Child Left Behind blitz. In 2002, the department paid Flare Media, of Arlington, Va., several thousand dollars to run an ad promoting the federal law in a free map distributed by the Old Town Trolley, a popular tourist-bus system. The map, which highlights tourist sights, is stocked in hotels, visitors’ centers, and airports, said the company’s president, Patrick Crerar.
Such efforts “don’t appear to be coordinated,” said Amy Falkner, the chairwoman of the advertising department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. To get the most out of its advertising dollars, she said, the department should have a coordinated campaign that ties together with its public relations activities.
The Department of Education under the Bush administration has financed a number of public relations campaigns to promote the No Child Left Behind Act and other priorities.
Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation
$2.4 million, in two separate grants, over three years
Providing information to parents about educational options under the No Child Left Behind Act in at least four cities. Outreach included No Child Left Behind and pro-charter-school billboards in Indianapolis.
New York City
Large public relations campaign for the No Child Left Behind Act, including media analysis, advertising, public-service announcements.
Corporation for Educational Radio and Television
New York City
Newspaper advertising for a Public Broadcasting Service documentary on a Connecticut charter school.
Corporate Sports Marketing Group
An ad, at right, promoting No Child Left Behind in souvenir programs for Major League Baseball.
ABC Radio Networks
New York City
Thirty-second radio spots in 2004 with voiceover by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige on Radio Disney, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.
Falls Church, Va.
Public relations wire service was paid to craft and distribute a pro-Education Department article about the No Child Left Behind Act to thousands of U.S. newspapers. NewsUSA’s chief executive officer, Rick Smith, says 536 mostly small weekly newspapers have run the article.
Department of Education; Education Week.
“They’re all over the place with their target audience,” Ms. Falkner said.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings compiled a list of the department’s advertising and public relations efforts and provided it to concerned members of Congress.
An Education Department spokeswoman said she could not estimate how much the department spends on its public relations efforts. But it’s not small change. Under the Bush administration, the Education Department’s largest traditional public relations undertaking has been its $1 million contract with the New York City-based public relations giant Ketchum Inc., for promoting the No Child Left Behind Act. It was under that contract that the department directed Ketchum to hire Mr. Williams’ communications firm as a subcontractor.
Some other Education Department public relations contracts total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, while others are for as little as a few thousand.
Stefan Von Ellenrader, the general manager of RedGizmo Creative Studio, a small advertising firm in San Antonio, would not reveal how much his company was paid to do public relations work for the department, in part as a subcontractor to George Washington University in Washington, which operates an Education Department-funded national clearinghouse for English-language acquisition.
RedGizmo mapped out a bilingual campaign aimed at educating parents about the No Child Left Behind Act, which included an interactive Web site and a series of events that featured President Bush’s first-term secretary of education, Rod Paige.
Under a separate contract directly with the Education Department, Mr. Ellenrader’s company worked on publicizing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and created a Web site in Spanish and English to chronicle that effort. As part of that arrangement, Pablo the Eagle was born. He’s the official mascot of the project and flies around the children’s portion of the Web site.
Under President Clinton’s administration, the Education Department was much less inclined to seek outside contracts for concerted public relations campaigns, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that advocates strong academic standards, and a former assistant education secretary under President Clinton.
Most often, the Clinton department used its internal press-relations shop to get its message to the public, Mr. Cohen said.
“When you spend money for public relations on an administration’s top priority, it’s hard to avoid the appearance that you’re spending taxpayer dollars for a political purpose,” he said. “It makes people uncomfortable.”
To spread its messages, the current Education Department also enlists organizations that target specific audiences. The Black Alliance for Educational Options, a Washington-based organization that promotes school choice options, including private school vouchers, has a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the department to help educate low-income minority parents about the options for their children under the No Child Left Behind Act, which can include transferring to better schools or receiving free after-school tutoring.
BAEO’s Project Clarion uses such low-tech tactics as passing out fliers at barber shops and sending postcards to parents. In Philadelphia, it ran a radio ad with rap music about tutoring services for students. It signs off with: “The Black Alliance for Educational Options, telling you the truth about educating our children.”
The ad doesn’t acknowledge that it was financed with federal money.
A Level of Discomfort
But Leon Tucker, a spokesman for BAEO, said there’s no need to do so. The nonprofit organization’s mission was to help disadvantaged students and their families become aware of their educational choices long before it received the federal grant, he said. It is unfair, he said, to compare public relations activities by organizations such as his to the Armstrong Williams deal.
“We’re not here to make money,” Mr. Tucker said. “I would have a hard time believing that parents whose children are in struggling schools … are going to be concerned about who’s paying for” an outreach campaign.
But others who have received Education Department outreach money say their relationship with the agency has caused discomfort.
“I’d never apply for a grant like that again because of how it could be perceived,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, whose Washington-based organization shares a $600,000 grant with the Oquirrh Institute in Salt Lake City to look at competency-based teacher certification.
“To have even an implication that challenges our integrity and our independent views is a problem for us,” Ms. Walsh said. “To us, it was not worth the money that we received to have anybody question our motivation.”
Ms. Walsh said that during the time her organization has had the grant, she has written 13 opinion pieces on teacher certification and the No Child Left Behind Act that have appeared in newspapers across the country. In writing those, she never acknowledged her organization’s grant from the department.
Ms. Walsh said that, in hindsight, she would have sought to include a tag line on her essays acknowledging the federal grant.
“We’re concerned about there even being a perception that we were championing NCLB for a fee,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me until the Armstrong Williams story broke that we had done anything that could be construed as remotely like that situation.”