Friday, December 9, 2011

Is integrity the price of virtual education?

How much simpler it would be if political campaigns were not fouled by secret corporate contributions cloaked as public interest groups doing advertising on behalf of candidates.

How much different our lives would be if newly minted elected officials arrived on the job beholden to no one but voters.

Today the voice of money in politics doesn't just talk, it roars. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court gave money an even bigger voice when it ruled that corporations are people and cannot be prohibited from financing political advertising because that would violate their free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The decision has created an atmosphere in which politicians don't apologize for accepting corporate largesse, though they may slyly demur as some Republican contenders for president did this week when invited to a debate financed by real estate magnate and wannabe kingmaker Donald Trump.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna isn't apologizing either for his 2010 campaign being the beneficiary of $44,000 from K12 Inc., the largest company in the nation that sets up virtual schools and online classes. Of the total, $25,000 was used by an independent group for advertising supporting Luna's election.

K12 also contributed $5,000 to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in 2010.

A Luna spokesman insists that the support from K12 has had no influence on Luna's education policies in the state. During his campaign, Luna never disclosed his support for online instruction. Yet, immediately after the election and with Otter's support, he successfully pushed to replace some classes with online instruction even though there is only scant and conflicting data to demonstrate its efficacy.

One thing is for sure, however—computers are cheaper than flesh-and-blood teachers, a fact dear to the hearts of tax- and budget-cutters of every ilk.

Luna acknowledges that he associates with the owners of K12's largest shareholder, a company owned by brothers Michael and Lowell Milken. Michael made a fortune in junk bonds in the 1980s and was convicted of securities fraud, a felony.

A state's chief education officer should be well-schooled in new developments in education. But when vendors of products and services like virtual classrooms contribute to the chief's political campaign as K12 did, it muddies the waters.

It may be too much to expect political candidates to know the meaning of the word "integrity," let alone to exercise it. However, anyone who would serve the public well should not accept donations of any kind from companies looking to get or renew contracts for goods or services with the state agency they may control.

Luna should be ashamed.

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