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'Sort of a Jack Abramoff Kind of Thing'

01/29/2014 11:06 am ET | Updated Mar 31, 2014

When the Canutillo Independent School District found out its superintendent was cooking the books just like in nearby El Paso, the board members knew they had a problem on their hands. But for a couple of local lobbyists, a school cheating scandal was just another business opportunity, underscoring the extent to which the school reform movement has become a special interest that sees public education as a business opportunity.

On Dec. 6, 2012, an internal audit into a scheme to scrub the rolls of students with special needs or limited fluency in English was presented to the Canutillo school board, which then suspended the superintendent. A similar scandal landed the El Paso superintendent in federal prison, but the practice is not limited to the western tip of Texas. Superintendents have been "juking the stats" since politicians linked test scores to accountability. Before he became George W. Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige engineered the Houston Miracle by underreporting dropout statistics. In Ohio, six school districts boosted scores by "scrubbing" more than 4,000 students from their records.

If cheating in accountability is not new, accountability for the cheaters is. No longer do we reward the mendacious with cabinet posts or move the principals into other school districts like pedophile priests being moved from parish to parish. The El Paso superintendent went to prison, and the Texas Education Agency replaced the elected school board with a Board of Managers on Dec. 6, 2012, the same day Canutillo district released its audit. Heading the Board of Managers was Dee Margo, a former Republican state representative close to a conservative business group called Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

The very next day, Armando Rodriguez, the president of the Canutillo school board, got an email from lobbyist Mark Smith that only contained this subject line: "We can help with your problems at CISD."

Rodriguez had no interest in hiring Smith and had good reason to be suspicious. Smith is a registered lobbyist for the Forma Group, a political consulting firm that handled former Rep. Margo's campaigns. And if you think that's incestuous, you must be new to El Paso politics.

Smith texted him the day after that: "We can get marissa to run interference before that board gets taken over. Month to month crisis management and legislative advocacy. 13,500 per month, 6 mos contract. Let's talk. Mark". The "Marissa" mentioned was state Rep. Marissa Marquez, a Democrat who crossed party lines to endorse--you guessed it--Margo in 2012 and has enjoyed financial backing from Texans for Lawsuit Reform for her campaigns.

The following week, Ricardo Armendariz of the Forma Group emailed Rodriguez to let him know he'd taken the liberty of discussing his predicament with Rep. Marquez. Out of sheer coincidence, Armendariz was also a registered lobbyist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform and their pro-privatization arm, Texans for Education Reform.

In theory, if a legislator represents a school board, the school board should not have to hire lobbyists to get the state representative to "run interference" for it. But because these lobbyists represented groups supporting a pro-business takeover of school districts, Canutillo's Rodriguez could not avoid the impression that influence was being peddled.

"At first, I knew they had close ties and influence with the governor as well as with certain people" such as TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, said Rodriguez, who still serves on the board but is no longer president. "It sort of struck me as a Jack Abramoff kind of thing. ...  I had suspected that there was more to it than trying to help out our school district with our situation."

Rodriguez did the hard thing. He said no and guided the school district through a state audit. Rep. Marquez faces a tough challenge in the Democratic Primary, but she has got Texans for Lawsuit Reform backing her, and Texans for Education Reform has big plans to get involved in the 2014 elections. Apparently their business backers were unhappy with the return on their investment in the lobbyists.

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