When Is It Okay for Public School Officials to Attend Tech-Funded Events?

School Infrastructure

When Is It Okay for Public School Officials to Attend Tech-Funded Events?

By Jenny Abamu     Dec 6, 2017

When Is It Okay for Public School Officials to Attend Tech-Funded Events?
ISTE 2017 conference, Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

The education technology industry often gets flak for not seeking the perspectives of educators. So these days, companies, nonprofits and researchers make working closely with teachers and administrators as one of their main priorities.

During the BMO Capital Markets’ Back to School Conference last September, CEOs and investors expressed their desire to seek input from teachers as they develop school products. “We have to work with the teachers. The days of districts procuring technology tools, throwing them into the laps of teachers and saying ‘good luck’ is gone. We have to do things differently,” Jamie Candee, CEO of Edmentum told the crowd.

Yet efforts to loop public education officials into private-sector activities can come with strings and consequences—especially when money is involved. As industry organizations offer educators a range of compensation, from travel stipends and honorariums to fees for consulting gigs, some school officials have waded into ethically murky waters.

In early November, The New York Times reported that Dallas Dance, former superintendent for the Baltimore County School District, had taken at least 65 out-of-state trips related to the district’s tech initiatives or involving industry-funded groups. The cost of these trips, according to the Times, totaled more than $33,000 with at least $13,000 of Dance’s flight, lodging, meals and other fees covered by organizations sponsored by tech companies. The article compared Dance’s interactions with tech companies to the pharmaceutical industry’s courting of physicians for product promotion.

Following the report, the Baltimore school district announced that its interim superintendent, Verletta White, and members of its board would follow more stringent rules governing accepting payments or gifts from external entities.

The long-time official policy for the district said that officials may accept ”reasonable expenses for food, travel, lodging and scheduled entertainment of the school official at a meeting which is given in return for the participation of the school official on a panel or a speaking engagement at the meeting.” By contrast, the announcement made on November 27th notes the following: officials may not accept compensation from groups outside the district; they will only travel with full approval from the board; they will post all travels on the district website and they will not accept funds for travel from groups outside the district.

All this raises a question: When is it acceptable for public education officials to accept payments for activities outside of the district? And how can districts draw the line between activities that help make school leaders more effective and those that might compromise their decision making when it comes to technology?

“Someone in the position of public authority—a superintendent, a principal, or a school board member—has to not merely be concerned about the absence of conflicts of interest, but also the perception that there could be conflicts of interests,” says Rob Reich, a political science professor and director of the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University.

“Someone in these positions should refrain from being on the payroll of any company or entity that is doing business or could reasonably in the future do business with a school or school district,” he continues.

Reich does make one exception: If district officials choose to engage in trips and speaking events with organizations outside the district, they should disclose their activities publically and agree to recuse themselves from any future decisions about the entities’ possible business with a school or district. This rule, he says, should apply to both for-profit companies and revenue generating nonprofits.

“There should be no cause for a concern about pay-for-play,” says Reich.

Shawn Rubin, chief education officer of the Rhode Island-based Highlander Institute, an education non-profit organization focused on researching, invited Dance to his organization’s Blended Learning Conference earlier this year. The organization offered to pay for Dance’s hotel and flight but noted that the former superintendent never requested the reimbursements. During the event, Dance spoke to a room full of educators about his experience trying to bring systematic change to his school district using technology-enhanced personalized learning.

“I think you can pay a superintendent to do something without currying their favor,” Rubin explained in a statement to EdSurge. “I think that a company can do something nice for a district (donation) without it automatically ingratiating themselves in an unfair way.”

For Rubin, the question is not whether educators should be paid for activities outside of the school district. Rather, he worries far more about superintendents who take on an excessive number of activities outside their district. Such activities point out Rubin, could negatively affect their ability to do their job.

“We brought Dallas to our conference because his message is tight! He knows more about district-level change management than just about anyone in the country, and he has the charisma and panache to explain it in a way that is engrossing for an audience,” Rubin explained.

“His talents warranted us bringing him to our conference and he never asked us for money. The people that were in the room (fellow educators) got way more from him than he got from us, and this is the case anywhere he goes,” Rubin continued.

The Blended Learning Conference is not the only event that offers stipends to educators to attend. Education technology conferences, sometimes featuring massive vendor halls, often seek to balance attendance by offering educators support for attending. Greg Rosenbaum, the general manager of SXSWedu (a conference with multiple technology sponsors), says he is actively working to balance attendance between the number of educators, researchers and industry people who come to the conference, but he doesn’t think actions such as those taken by interim superintendent White will hurt attendance at SXSWedu.

At SXSWedu’s 2017 conference in March, Rosenbaum says 44 percent of approximately 13,000 attendees were educators. He also noted that SXSWedu offered fewer than 15 travel stipends to educators, with funding from the nonprofit Walton Family Foundation.

Even though the conference offers a limited number of stipends, Rosenbaum is keeping his eyes on the lines districts are drawing—noting that a large number of conference participants have their cost for attending SXSWedu underwritten by the organizations they are affiliated with. These types of changes could impact attendance.

“We were interested and surprised to see that over 70 percent of our registrants [who answered a survey] said someone else that underwrites the cost of their registration, presumably an organization or school,” Rosenbaum explains. “It will interesting to see what, if any, recourse for will occur from these actions.”

SXSWedu’s use of foundation funding to offset travel expenses for educators offers a layer of separation between public school officials and tech companies. Yet the questions about policy lines regarding the acceptance of gifts from outside organizations still remain. Hundreds of educators receive some funding to attend such events every year. Is the support ethically questionable? School districts are still debating, but they are keeping their eyes on corporations that may be seizing these opportunities to unduly influence an educator's decision-making process, blurring the lines.

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