9 Investigates: Impact of lobbying contracts on children's education

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. —

Despite late scores and questions about grading practices, the state pays International Pearson Incorporated hundreds of millions of dollars to administer the FCAT.

Now, investigative reporter George Spencer discovered Pearson has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to legislators.

In her summertime routine, fifth-grader Erin Newman has now gotten over her FCAT writing score, which as for many Florida students, was lower than she expected.

But in Tallahassee, WFTV learned that the private company behind the test deals in numbers that are very high.

Despite scoring problems and student failures, the state is paying Pearson $249 million for five years of tests and grading. WFTV also found that Pearson spend hundreds of thousands to influence those same leaders.

"Public education is open for business. Whoever the best bidder is, you can come in and administer our test for us," said parent Rebecca Newman. "It's ridiculous!"

WFTV studied public records and discovered that since 2007, two years before getting its current contract, the International Pearson Incorporated has spent at least $580,000, and possibly as much as $800,000 on lobbyists in Florida's capital.

But Pearson's quarterly spending often put it in the highest tier of lobbyist spending by firms in any sector.

Lobbyists are paid to advocate their clients' interests in the halls of power, meeting face-to-face with lawmakers. They're known to be persistent, sometimes returning time and again to make their case.

Pearson's money went to Uhlfelder and Associates.

According to the group's website, it was named "one of the top lobbying firms in Florida by Influence magazine."

The group claims to have "extraordinary knowledge of the people, the policies and the processes of Florida government to "get the results our clients demand."

"Should the state cut its ties with this company?" Spencer asked.

"I absolutely think that we should cut out ties," said Representative Geraldine Thompson.

Thompson, a longtime educator, was already troubled by Pearson's late grading debacle in 2010, an avalanche of writing test failures this year and concerns about test questions with more than one right answer.

WFTV learned that other education firms also use lobbyists.

Uhlfelder said he was chosen as lobbyist for his educational expertise and that his lobbying work had no impact on Pearson's FCAT contract. Pearson said its reputation for educational excellence allows them to use lobbyists only to inform and advise elected officials. 

READ: Uhlfelder and Pearson's response