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Iowa education chief defends free trip

Sept. 23–CEDAR RAPIDS — If it’s a choice between learning and not learning, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass will choose learning. Every time. Glass, who describes himself as “State Director & Chief Learner,” is defending his participation in an all-expense paid conference in Brazil. It was underwritten by a foundation tied to a corporation that has contracts worth more than $4.8 million with the State of Iowa.

|By James Q. Lynch, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Sept. 23–CEDAR RAPIDS — If it’s a choice between learning and not learning, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass will choose learning.

Every time.

Glass, who describes himself as “State Director & Chief Learner,” is defending his participation in an all-expense paid conference in Brazil. It was underwritten by a foundation tied to a corporation that has contracts worth more than $4.8 million with the State of Iowa.

“Anytime I have an opportunity to visit a high-performing country to talk to some of the best education minds in the world about what we can do to improve schools in Iowa — at no expense to the Iowa taxpayers — I’m going to take that,” Glass said Thursday.

“So if the alternative is go or don’t go, if the choice for me is learn or don’t learn, I’m going to choose to go and learn,” he said.

Glass chose to “go and learn” this month at the International Education Initiative in Rio de Janeiro. It was sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and paid for with a grant from Pearson Foundation. Its London-based corporate cousin, Pearson, has operations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Coralville.

Glass, who, according to his blog, was in the company of at least 12 other state education directors in Brazil, is adamant he did nothing illegal in accepting the trip.

Megan Tooker, executive director and legal counsel of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, tends to agree with Glass that there is no legal issue. No complaint, either formal or informal, has been filed with her agency, which has jurisdiction over executive agencies.

However, the law is often the minimum response to ethics questions, according to Professor Nancy Hauserman, who teaches law and ethics at the Iowa Tippie College of Business. The appearance of a conflict of interest can be damaging in the eyes of a cynical public, she said.

Glass pointed out that he has not awarded any contracts to Pearson since joining Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration.
Also, Glass said, the contracts Pearson has with the state were awarded through an “open and transparent, competitive bidding process.” In many cases, those bid lettings are handled not by the education department, but by the Department of Administrative Services.

The relationship between Pearson, the foundation, and Pearson, the corporation, raises an “interesting issue,” Tooker said.
She said she is unaware if the ethics board has ever issued an opinion on the question of whether a foundation linked to a restricted donor — a business that works with the state — is also a restricted donor.

There are at least two degrees of separation between Pearson and his participation in the Rio conference, Glass said.

“Pearson Foundation is not the corporation and the Council of Chief State School Officers is not the corporation,” he said.
Tooker’s concern, though, is whether the acceptance of such gifts creates a conflict that could cloud someone’s judgment.
That’s no question at all for Roy Snell.

It’s not about legality; the question is whether accepting the trip was a bad business decision, according to Snell, a former ethics compliance officer with the Mayo Clinic and now CEO of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics based in Minneapolis. He believes freebies of any value have the potential to affect decision-making.

“It’s not a question of if it will affect his future decision-making, but when,” Snell said. “Why take the chance that this guy is then someday going to make an altered decision” because of a free trip to an international conference?

Hauserman does not have such a black-and-white view of public officials participating in conferences underwritten in all or in part by private entities.

“Even assuming you could disentangle all the various connections, it’s very difficult to take a totally arms-length approach,” she said. Glass is in a “damned if you do, damned if you do” situation, she said.

“We don’t want uneducated leaders, leaders who aren’t current in their fields, who can’t take advantage of current knowledge,” she said. For example, Hauserman learns what’s new in her field from academic conferences, making connections that help her and the UI.

Her solution: have an open and transparent, consistent decision-making model that the public will see as fair.

“Our leaders have an obligation to make sure that they make decisions with an eye to being objection, to weighing all factors,” Hauserman said.

She also advises officials to be upfront about decisions that might create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“Tell people what the situation is and what you are doing to avoid a potential conflict,” Hauserman said.
Glass believes he has a consistent decision-making model.

“Every time a trip is offered, I have to look at what are the possible benefits, what are my priorities, what am I working on,” he said.

“I have to ask what can I learn, what can I bring back, how can I use this to improve schools in Iowa.

“That’s the lens I look through and then evaluate it against the ethical guidelines that are part of state law.”

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(c)2011 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

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