Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Education Agency's PR Budget Topped $9M

Education Agency's PR Budget Topped $9M

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 4, 2005; 3:37 AM

WASHINGTON -- The Education Department has committed more than $9 million to public relations in recent years, from informing people about test scores to touting the school agenda of President Bush, new records show.

The largest share, $5.45 million, went to the Hager Sharp firm for coordination of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test also known as the nation's report card.

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Documents detailing the department's hiring of private firms were released to The Associated Press on Tuesday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The department has come under fire for how it promotes its agenda, leading new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to pledge tighter scrutiny.

The total spending includes a $1.3 million contract with the Ketchum public relations firm _ $240,000 of which went to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote Bush's education law. That hiring proved embarrassing to the administration and Williams.

Most of the newly released records cover spending during 2002, 2003 and 2004, although at least one significant contract, $1.69 million with ZGS Communications, was for 1998-2002. That contract went for audio, video and print materials about department programs.

Overall, most of the money committed for public relations appeared to go toward routine expenses, the documents indicate. Those expenses include public service announcements, materials about financial aid and promotion of the department's Web site.

"There's no point in spending taxpayer money on these programs if we're not going to provide parents with information that they exist," said department spokeswoman Susan Aspey.

More than half of Hager Sharp's total was spent on meetings concerning development of the national achievement test. Those tasks, handled by a subcontractor, were bundled into the testing contract and had nothing to with public relations, said Hager Sharp Vice President Debra Silimeo.

The rest of the Hager Sharp money, roughly $2.2 million, went for public relations, the Education Department records show. That includes the formal release of federal test score results and promotional booths about the voluntary test at education trade shows.

"People need to understand what it is and why it's important, and people who participate in it deserve to know what the results are," Silimeo said about the test.

The records also reveal new detail about the Ketchum contract, outlining how money was committed for aids for teachers, promotion of a science summit and brochures on tutoring.

The Ketchum deal also included an analysis of coverage by education reporters, giving them points if they made the Bush administration and the Republican Party look good. The department has said the ratings had no influence over how it treats reporters.

Beyond hiring Williams through Ketchum, the agency paid for a promotional "video news release" that looked like a real news story, a tactic congressional investigators have called "covert propaganda" in at least two other cases.

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