Crumbling Foundations 

Part II: Cronies come first

"Do you think I can't have an original thought, that ... I'm incapable of doing any of this on my own?"

--Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna

Last week, I questioned arguments made in a gushy Albertson Foundation ad (Idaho Statesman, Jan. 30, 2011) endorsing Tom Luna's education reforms. Of those reforms, two aspects in particular are most offensive not only to me, but it would seem to the greatest portion of those who have been vocal in opposition to the changes. Foremost among the questionable components is Luna's stated intention to increase class size with the ultimate goal of the elimination of hundreds of teaching positions. To anyone who believes that providing a broad and public education to a nation's young is among the most fundamental services a government can render, this suggestion to sacrifice teachers on the altar of a balanced budget sounds misguided at best and medieval-level ignorant at worst.

Yet in many ways the other aspect of Luna's ill-conceived proposition is even more outrageous than his efforts (as I and many others see it) to punish the Idaho education community for never supporting him in his political aspirations and holding a generally low opinion of his professional qualifications.

During the preparation of last week's column, I was made aware of financial relationships between key players which strongly suggest a motive that goes far beyond trying to cut expenditures from a beleaguered state budget. These arrangements indicate that Idaho students and the budget crisis would be used as a pretext to further enrich entities who profit from the poor conditions of public schooling in America, and for that reason have no compelling interest in seeing those conditions improve. To the contrary, the more desperate parents can be convinced that the public system is beyond salvation, the better positioned education-for-profit interests are.

Luna has been fiddling with his reforms in a cynical attempt to make them more palatable to a public that by and large has rejected his ideas. It's also probable that by the day this appears in print, the matter will have been finalized in a Legislature that can always find a thousand sins in an elected government but sees nothing wrong with faceless corporate manipulation. But whatever the outcome, for me the sulfurous stink of how it appears to have developed persists, particularly the Albertson Foundation's involvement.

Many, if not all, of the financial relationships are now in the open, thanks to the reporting of Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman, John Miller of the Associated Press, and my favorite resource, Grove Koger. You may not all connect the dots in the same manner as I have below, but it's hard to deny there are dots to be connected.

• Returning from a two-year stint in the George W. Bush Department of Education, Luna began actively promoting charter schools and online study as state superintendent of public instruction. As one example, he pushed for, and got, the Idaho Math Initiative delivered by a Pittsburgh provider, Apangea, which donated at least $3,500 to his '06 campaign. In 2010 alone, Idaho taxpayers paid Apangea $1.3 million for content.

• A partial list of other online providers who have contributed to Luna's campaign coffers include the Apollo Group from Phoenix, Education Networks of America out of Nashville, Tenn., Madison Education Group of Washington, D.C., and K12 Inc. of Virginia, which donated at least $10,000 in 2006, and in last year's race, put up $25,000, which produced negative ads against Luna's opponent.

• K12 Inc. (founded by William Bennett, who donated $1,000 to Luna's failed '02 race) provides content to Idaho's largest online charter school, the Idaho Virtual Academy. IVA is widely used by the home-schooling crowd, at an expense to Idaho taxpayers of $12.8 million in 2010 alone. (There are five additional online charter schools in Idaho. As yet, no figures have emerged as to the total cost to the state to provide online material. My guess is, it would pay for a lot of in-state teachers.)

• Until December 2010, one of K12's directors was Tom Wilford of Boise, who, incidentally, is the past president and current CEO of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. In 2007, Wilford's compensation for sitting on the K12 board was $354. In 2008, the compensation grew to $28,578. In 2009, it was $55, 829. Last year, he gained $107,114, more than half of which came as stock in K12 Inc. (Forbes.com, from which these figures come, offers no explanation as to why Wilford's worth to the company was more than 300 times in 2010 what it was in 2007.) Wilford (incidentally, a robust contributor to Luna's campaigns) is also the president of Alscott Inc., an investment company for Joe Albertson's heirs. Rumors of Alscott's investment in K12 (to the tune of 355,000 shares) are confirmed.

• Over its 40-plus years, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation has given millions in grants to Idaho arts and institutions. In 1995--the same year Wilford became its president, incidentally--the foundation became concentrated on the Idaho education system, with an emphasis on the promotion of charter schools and online learning. Last month, the foundation bought a full-page ad in the Statesman, throwing its enthusiastic support behind the reforms proposed by Luna--which, if passed, would increase exponentially the tax money going to out-of-state providers.

In retrospect, we have to wonder: With all the disclosures that have come since that big ad appeared, might the foundation's leaders now wish they had kept their enthusiasm to themselves?

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