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Education Vendor Rakes In Big Money – Raises Concern

Education Vendor Rakes In Big Money – Raises Concern

By David Ferguson

The Executive Committee of Legislative Joint Auditing voted unanimously to conduct an audit of government contracts with Solution Tree, a company providing professional development resources and programs for teachers in all 50 states. The request for an audit was brought to the committee by a bipartisan group of legislators, including Representative Hope Duke (R – Gravette), Senator Linda Chesterfield (D – Little Rock), Representative Grant Hodges (R – Rogers), and Senator Dan Sullivan (R – Jonesboro).

The audit of Solution Tree contracts should be of high interest to the public because of the huge amount of education money involved; because Solution Tree’s programs have an impact on teachers across the state; and because there doesn’t appear to be any data on whether the programs have improved education.

What began as a $4 million contract in 2017 has grown to $16.5 million. That amount of money and the rapid growth of the contract is reason enough for an audit making sure the contracts are being done properly. Yet that amount is merely a drop in the bucket when compared to the total amount Arkansans are paying Solution Tree and its associates.

Rep. Hodges did some digging and discovered Solution Tree also has contracts with most school districts and with the state’s education cooperatives and institutions of higher education.

According to Rep. Hodges, when the contracts with the state, school districts, education cooperatives and institutions of higher education are combined, Solution Tree and its associates received a whopping $140 million or more from Arkansas’ educational government agencies.


In just a few years, Solution Tree has had astronomical growth in Arkansas. With so much education money at stake, it is reasonable to ask whether teachers and students are getting the “bang” for the bucks being spent. That was a concern of Senator Chesterfield who said, “We continue to hear about, ‘Oh, they’re really doing a great job’, but I can’t find out how many school districts have moved from an F school to a C school.”

Arkansans want teachers to have the tools they need, but is Solution Tree’s product such a high priority tool? Is paying Solution Tree $140 million the best use of education dollars when many teachers are still using their own money to buy supplies?


A prime reason for concern is the original $4 million contract was a no-bid contract, and the more recent $16.5 million state contract was also a no-bid contract. When there is a no-bid contract, other vendors do not have an opportunity to compete for the business. With those contracts being awarded without the bidding process, that raises the question: Have contracts with Solution Tree by school districts, education cooperatives, and state institutions of higher education also been no-bid contracts?

Why wasn’t the state’s procurement process for requests for proposals used? “The no-bid contract was approved after [Education Commissioner Johnny] Key told state procurement officials that there could be no other provider for the services because Solution Tree researched, developed and trademarked the Professional Learning Communities at Work program. (from Arkansas Times)”[i]

Was Solution Tree’s program named in the criteria because Solution Tree was truly the only player in the game or was Solution Tree’s program named to make sure no other company could compete for professional development services?


Soon, the state will be making decisions about a new contract for professional development resources for teachers. It is my understanding that other vendors will have an opportunity to compete for the contract, but is the request for proposals written broadly enough for real competition? Why is this a concern? Because I am aware there have been times when vendors have tried to influence how government officials write bid criteria in a way that the vendor’s product fits the criteria better than the products of competitors.

Because action on a new contract will take place soon, a review of the state’s request for proposal should be a priority to determine whether the criteria is written in a way to encourage competition or to favor Solution Tree.


The Arkansas Times, a liberal subscription news service, reported Solution Tree sent a two-page letter to teachers warning them that the audit could jeopardize Solution Tree’s future in Arkansas.[ii] That seems like a red flag to me. Why would it jeopardize the company’s future in Arkansas if the company is providing a valuable service to schools and gaining the contracts in a fair, above board manner?


Is gaining business by hiring the people who award contracts part of the company’s business model? Rep. Hodges said, “We know Solution Tree hires school district personnel to be consultants or to work in other roles for the company.”  Hodges said they have seen this practice by Solution Tree in other states and he already has a partial list of Arkansas school district employees who do work for Solution Tree. If a school district employee who does work for Solution Tree is also involved in the process of the school procuring the services of Solution Tree, that could be a conflict of interest and give Solution Tree an unfair advantage.


Solution Tree’s resources and services might be worth every penny being spent by Arkansas. Even if it is, the procurement process must be done fairly. The Legislative Audit staff has an excellent reputation and is known for unbiased and thorough audits. The audit will give state legislators a clear picture of how business is being conducted. It will either ease their concerns or reveal deficiencies needing to be addressed. If state procurement and ethics laws are inadequate the audit may provide information needed for improving the laws.


I considered writing about a potential conflicts of interest, but this article is already long and there is so much more to discuss. The subject will have to wait for another article.

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[i] Legislators ask for audit of school vendor Solution Tree, Arkansas Times, February 8, 2024

[ii] Solution Tree CEO makes its case to teachers, legislators, Arkansas Times, February 19.2024

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