A number of organizations, some who are quasi-government entities and some who are for-profit companies, continue to create pay-to-play events in education.  They pay superintendents to attend in a remarkable feat of unawareness of federal conflict-of-interest and bribery laws, even though superintendents are usually taking at least some Title 1 money from the Federal level.   These organizations often create the illusion that the attendee is specially chosen, and he or she is enticed with short programs on rather routine topics, plus a resort-style destination with expenses paid in addition to a “consulting fee.”  The organizations tell their vendors they can expect a “high return on investment” since the vendors will be operating under the pretext of “doing product research” while pitching superintendents relentlessly. 

No subsequent research is ever published, at least not from any public press releases you might expect would be a natural outcome of such research to highlight the new product directions of any one of these companies.  The result is that superintendents fall for one of the oldest ploys in the book – pay to play. 

Unsuspecting superintendents keep getting ensnared in this scheme to attend meetings which are little more than time-share-style pitching by vendors who pay enormous amounts to lasso in school and district leaders. Companies love these ideas because it’s “like shooting fish in a barrel,” as one industry source said to the Learning Counsel.  The size of subsequent deals that are frequently non-competed are enormous – and very risky.  Many superintendents have gone to jail or come under intense political pressure over this. 

Some of those schools have been called out in the media for wasteful spending on technology and sacrificed on the altar of public opinion. See “How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom,” Nov. 3, 2017, New York Times. This Times article illustrates the length that organizations will go to when they have a superintendent in their sights.  This seems rather like unfair baiting of otherwise innocent educators trying to do what’s best for kids.


Here are some of the news stories highlighting this questionable activity. For superintendents, these are cautionary tales:

Chicago Public Schools CEOs charged

Baltimore County Schools superintendent indicted

SC district subpoenaed by US Attorney’s office

Parents demand answers in Kent School District

Pittsburg superintendent investigated


There is a better way

Not all organizations or media companies operate like this. In fact, most do not. It is important to know the difference. For example, the Learning Counsel presents sponsored events, but we don’t pay attendees. Our superintendents, curriculum directors, tech directors and principals freely give their time, and generally leave satisfied because of the educational programming they receive. They are not asked to give product advice or participate in product research.

Giving product advice to a vendor after hearing their whole pitch and seeing a demonstration is also known as the sales cycle.  It’s a normal part of business, the sales part.  First, the vendor tells you all about themselves and then you might say, “well, it would be better if it had smaller boxes and more blue lines,” which is about the depth of critique superintendent’s as non-developers are usually going to make. All buyers are supposed to make a show of critical analysis, like having an issue with the type of leather seats in the car you are about to buy.  It’s getting wined and dined for days, feeling obliged, and then allowing sole-source contracts without competition that’s the real problem.  That is something the American taxpayer finds corrupt and repugnant.  

In Louisiana, the Board of Ethics (LBE) ruled that one of Louisiana’s superintendents, Isaac Joseph of Jefferson Parish Public Schools (JPPS), could not ethically accept “an honorarium and payment of travel, meal, ground transportation and lodging costs in exchange for providing consulting services,” in April 2017.  (Source:  ERDI: Paying School Admin to Review Ed Products that Those Admin Could Then Purchase… (?), Huffington Post, Jan. 15, 2018.)

At Learning Counsel regional and national events, sponsors are allowed to make short presentations and participate in the conversation and activities, but not pummel districts off in a corner for hours and hours. Such intensive pitching invites superintendents into ignoring the greater market choices and their public duty to compete companies because they feel after three days of free vacation plus additional side-pay that they owe back a deal or two, or three.  To any outsider, this looks fishy, even if the superintendent sets it up to go through a foundation or charity.  Far too often, a separate non-profit may still launder money back in Board expenses.  These are the things that politicians and administrators should avoid but often don’t know the repercussions. 

Jail time and a ruined career are no joke. 

As a research institute and news media hub, the Learning Counsel instead choses to deliver value not found anywhere else with intellectual leadership that is real and earned.  Events are shortened as much as possible to help get schools back to productivity.  Honest reporting from every Learning Counsel event is publicly exposed to a national audience of 215,000 readers, as well as often picked up by other media.  Nothing is in secret, nothing limits opportunities, no misrepresentation of relationship is allowed.  This is a big difference because no superintendent or administrator is ever exposed to conflict of interest and possible jail time – just because they are into Ed-Tech leadership. 

A free, open and honest market, aided by many in the education press, makes it fair for all companies and more importantly brings education a truth unconflicted by special interests. 

Pay for play in the education market is a dangerous proposition, especially when there are so many legitimate opportunities for superintendents and other education leaders to get the information and education they need.


About the author

 LeiLani Cauthen is CEO of the Learning Counsel, and author of The Consumerization of Learning.