Investigators looking into a massive, multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to support President Bush’s top education priorities acknowledge that taxpayer dollars were used in ways that often were not disclosed to the public, in clear violation of federal rules–but they stopped short of concluding that the government has engaged in any illegal propaganda.

Their report has raised the ire of many Democrats in Congress, who say it doesn’t go far enough in its rebuke. The Bush administration has devoted too much time–and money–to polishing its own public image, and not nearly enough on providing adequate funding to improve the nation’s schools, the president’s critics contend.

The report, from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Office of the Inspector General (OIG)–the internal investigation unit responsible for policing ED programs–found that media relations firms, advocacy groups, and other private companies received nearly $5 million in grants to help galvanize public support for the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) without disclosing that they received taxpayer funds to do so, as required by law.

In at least four cases, education officials failed to turn over materials necessary for investigators to conduct a thorough analysis. In one such instance–a $1.7 million public relations effort–ED was unable to provide a complete list of work statements associated with the contract and could not specify what deliverables the investment intended to yield.

Though the report, released by Inspector General John Higgins’ office earlier this month, found no evidence of “covert propaganda” on behalf of education officials, it did say ED needs to do a better job of tracking and monitoring how taxpayer dollars are spent and even suggested that the administration move to recoup some of the monies in those instances where rules governing full disclosure reportedly were broken.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., requested the report in January after it was discovered that ED paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote NCLB programs in newspaper columns and as part of his television talk show. Williams’ payment was part of a larger, $1.3 million contract awarded to the Ketchum public relations firm for promotion related to the landmark education law.

Williams was one of several high-profile columnists who reportedly received federal money as part of larger grants or contracts intended to create brand awareness and promote NCLB-related policies, documents have revealed.

Though the government is allowed to hire PR firms and other individuals to advocate for reform, the rule states that these parties must openly disclose their government ties to the public. Failing to disclose such a relationship could be construed as an attempt to sway public opinion unfairly, according to the report.

In all, investigators reviewed some 20 contracts and 15 grants awarded by ED from 1999 through 2004 for evidence of “covert propaganda.”

According to the report, three grants were used to create opinion pieces in newspapers. Each of these failed to disclose that they were produced with the aid of government dollars, though ED officials claim–and investigators agree–the oversight was unintentional.

“While three of the grants resulted in op-ed opinion pieces that did not include the disclaimer language required … we did not find evidence to conclude that the department awarded these grants with an intent to influence public opinion through the undisclosed use of third-party grantees,” wrote investigators.

But that doesn’t mean ED shouldn’t attempt to recoup the funds. “In the absence of the disclaimer language, the funds used to produce a publication may be an improper expenditure, requiring [ED] to initiate appropriate recovery action,” the report stated.

Six other grants used to create brochures, print and radio ads, billboards, and other pro-NCLB materials also did not fully disclose the role of the department, according to the report. One contract, meanwhile, still is under review pending ED’s ability to produce the relevant paperwork, officials said. Because disclosure rules are more lenient for advertisements than for op-ed pieces, investigators recommend that ED seek reimbursement for these materials on a case-by-case basis.

The OIG’s findings weren’t enough to satisfy Miller, who accused the department of attempting to avoid public scrutiny by claiming ignorance. In its defense, ED claims that grantees and contractors simply were not aware of the rules.

“The department is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes ‘covert propaganda,'” said Miller. “But on multiple occasions, education groups used taxpayer money–unbeknownst to taxpayers–to promote controversial federal policies.”

He added: “The department allowed this egregious use of taxpayer dollars to continue with such consistency that it cannot now claim that it was ignorant of the practice. Either the department is grossly incompetent when it comes to awarding grants and contracts, or it is misleading investigators and engaging in a cover-up.”

All told, ED spent more than $14 million in grants and contracts through 2004 to promote NCLB to the public.

Though total federal spending on education also rose during this period, state and local education leaders from both political parties contend the increased funding hasn’t been enough to meet NCLB’s strict mandates for student achievement. What’s more, budget cuts are likely across the board in 2006 as Congress weighs spending hundreds of billions in additional aid for the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast region and the war on terror.

For advocates of educational technology, the budget picture has been even bleaker. While ED was spending $14 million to promote NCLB, funding for the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program–the main source of federal funding for educational technology–dropped from $700.5 million in 2002 to $496 million last year.

Still, the practice of spinning pre-packaged marketing as legitimate news is nothing new to Washington politics. Former President Clinton used similar strategies to get some of his messages out to the public. In March, an investigation by The New York Times found that Clinton, like Bush, also had a habit of paying public relations firms to produce canned news reports written and reported by supposedly objective journalists.

But the line between true journalism and recycled PR-speak has been blurred even more since Bush took office, critics say.

“Under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be producing more releases, and on a broader array of topics,” the Times pointed out.

Though it’s nearly impossible to track every piece of government-produced news that appears on television or in the pages of major newspapers, estimates say Bush spent close to $254 million on public relations contracts during his first term in office, nearly twice what Clinton spent, according to the paper.

To ED’s credit, investigators looking into the department’s PR efforts said a majority of the grants and contracts used to promote NCLB and other initiatives–about $8 million worth–either properly disclosed the government’s involvement or were not required to because they were never intended for public consumption.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings did not concede any fault on behalf of the department, but agreed that there is room for improvement. The findings “will be very helpful to the department in our continuing efforts to improve our processes in awarding and monitoring grants and contracts,” wrote Spellings in response to the report.

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, ED refused to comment further, saying that “apart from Secretary Spellings’ letter addressing this, we haven’t provided any further responses.”

ED also refused to say why it failed to provide investigators with requested information pertaining to four contracts and at least one grant.

In her letter, Spellings said officials would try to locate the missing documents and eventually turn them over for review. In the event of any violation of law, Spellings said, “the department will take appropriate remedial action.”

In the meantime, OIG made several recommendations for ED as it seeks to improve its overall handling of public relations campaigns–improvements Spellings says the department either is working on already or intends to implement in the not-too-distant future.

For starters, investigators recommended that ED devise a more efficient means of helping internal personnel and grantees understand rules and policies to ensure that contracts and grants are handled appropriately.

The OIG also said ED should make a more concerted effort to track and monitor grants and contracts, so officials can better understand how well projects help the department meet its long-term goals.

Spellings’ pledge to tighten the bolts on ED’s PR machine notwithstanding, Miller and other critics contend the damage already has been done.

“This was an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars, and the taxpayers ought to be made whole again,” said Miller. “But that’s only part of the story. People looking at advertisements or reading their local newspapers would have had no idea that what they were reading was bought and paid for with their tax dollars. No matter which way you slice it, that is propaganda.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov/

Office of the Inspector General
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/index.html?src=oc

OIG’s “Review of Department-Identified Contracts and Grants for Public Relations Services”
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/i13f0012.pdf

Rep. George Miller
http://www.house.gov/georgemiller/