‘Pay to play,’ part 2

The term “pay to play,” when used in education circles, usually refers to requiring students or their parents to pay fees for the privilege of playing sports or taking part in extracurricular activities.

But there’s another kind of pay to play, and it’s alive and well in Indiana politics, including education politics. It’s the practice of elected officials taking campaign donations from companies that do business with the government agencies that the officials oversee.

Karen Francisco of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette points to one example in her Learning Curve blog. She notes that Apangea Learning, a privately owned company based in Pittsburgh, signed a contract last week to provide online tutoring for Indiana students. And that the company had made two $1,000 contributions to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s election campaigns.

Here’s another: K-12 Inc., a Herndon, Va., company that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, gave Bennett’s campaign $2,000 in October 2008. The next year, the Department of Education announced the launch of Indiana’s first online charter school: Hoosier Academies, run by K-12 Inc.

And another: Connections Academy, based in Baltimore, gave $2,000 to Bennett’s campaign in 2009. In March of this year, the Indiana Department of Education announced the selection of a second online charter-school program: Rural Community Schools, operated by Connections Academy.

Lauren Auld, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said Apangea was chosen for the math tutoring program through a competitive bidding process; and the virtual charter operators took part in a process in which applications were scored according to pre-determined rubrics. Campaign contributions “had absolutely nothing to do with” the selections, she said.

But even if proper procedures are strictly followed, people are bound to feel a little cynical when they see public funds going to out-of-state, for-profit companies that are in turn helping elect Indiana politicians to office.

Pay to play, of course, has a long history in Indiana politics, and it has been practiced by Democrats as readily as by Republicans like Bennett. And Indiana is far from alone. According to Public Citizen, an independent public-interest organization, only nine states restrict the practice. Then there’s Illinois, where former Gov. Rod Blagojevich reportedly took trading favors for donations to a new level.

Last month, Indiana Senate Democratic leader Vi Simpson of Ellettsville put forward an “open government initiative” that would, among other things, “prohibit individuals with state contracts from making political contributions to state office holders or candidates.” But Democrats make up barely one-third of the Senate, and their proposal is unlikely to get much traction.

Another idea would be to require immediate and explicit disclosure every time a state contractor makes a campaign contribution, and every time a contract is awarded to a campaign donor. If politicians don’t think there’s anything wrong with pay to play, they shouldn’t mind letting the world know about it.

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