Over the past week, it has been reported that the Department of Education used the communications services of a nationally known commentator to inform the public about the No Child Left Behind law. I have sought to make sure that we have all the facts at hand before responding. For this reason, for the past week, my staff, at my direction, has been reviewing the contract with regard to services expected and provided. My goal is to provide some clarity and accuracy.
Three years ago, the largest change in education policy occurred with the birth of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law started a revolution in public education, empowering parents, holding the system accountable for results, raising our expectations for all students, and targeting the pernicious achievement gap. Because of the enormous task at hand – communicating this sea change in law to parents and taxpayers so that they could fully understand and take advantage of it – we engaged a major public relations firm with expertise in social marketing to assist us.
Hiring outside experts to help communicate a complex issue is standard practice in all sectors of our society: local, state and the federal government; the private sector; and the non-profit sector. The work for which the Graham Williams Group was paid through Ketchum was part of a larger minority outreach effort by the Department because economically disadvantaged and minority students and families are most affected by the educational achievement gap that the law seeks to eradicate.
The funds for the Graham Williams Group’s services went exclusively toward the production and airtime of advertisements in which I described the law and encouraged viewers and listeners to call the Department’s toll-free information line. The funds covered those costs alone and nothing more. All of this has been reviewed and is legal. However, I am sorry that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses. This is disappointing to me and to this Department as a whole.
I have spent my entire life trying to improve the lives of children, particularly the disadvantaged. To me, No Child Left Behind has always been about completing the unfinished business of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated schools 50 years ago. This law helps break that cycle of poverty and racism by helping to improve education for all students, and in particular our society’s most vulnerable. That a public relations contract has caused the good work of this Department to come into question is deeply disturbing to me. And it is certainly not the legacy I wish to leave behind.
In addition to my staff’s initial fact-finding efforts, I have also asked for an expedited Inspector General investigation in order to clear up any remaining aspects of this issue as soon as possible so that it does not burden my successor or sully the fine people and good name of this Department.