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Web of Entanglements and Big Money

Web of Entanglements and Big Money

By David Ferguson

This article focuses on ties between the Department of Education, the Arkansas Association of Education Administrators (AAEA), and Solution Tree, an education vendor.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee of the Arkansas Legislature is auditing state and school contracts with Solution Tree and its affiliates. Solution Tree is a company providing professional development resources and services for teachers in all 50 states. In 2017, Solution Tree received a $4 million contract with the Arkansas Department of Education to provide professional development resources and services for teachers.

The audit committee is examining how a $4 million contract in 2017 morphed into over $140 million in contracts, when you combine the amount spent in contracts with Solution Tree from the Department of Education, Arkansas school districts, Arkansas’ education cooperatives, and state institutions of higher education.

The contracts with the Department of Education have been “no bid” contracts, meaning no other vendor was allowed to compete to provide the professional development services and resources. The department made it a no bid contract by limiting its search for programs to only one specific program copyrighted by Solution Tree. The legislative committee wants to know how the other contracts came about and whether they too were no bid contracts.


State legislators are also looking into whether any individuals involved in awarding contracts to Solution Tree had conflicts of interest due to financial ties to Solution Tree. During the meeting of the Executive Committee of Joint Legislative Audit, State Representative Grant Hodges (R- Rogers) said there have been controversies in other states over conflicts of interest because some education officials involved in selecting Solution Tree also work as part-time consultants for Solution Tree or are paid by Solution Tree for other services, such as writing program materials for Solution Tree. Rep. Hodges said he has a partial list of Arkansas educators who do some work for Solution Tree. But he does not yet know which, if any, of the employees have been involved in the selection of Solution Tree as a service provider.


The Department of Education introduced Solution Tree to schools through the 2017 no bid contract. Then another contract brought school administrators onboard to be part of Team Solution Tree.

The Department of Education was eligible for big piles of federal grant money related to federal COVID-19 recovery efforts. The department decided to use over $5 million from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) to promote Solution Tree’s program and to build a Solution Tree super team. The contract brought on board the Arkansas Association of School Administrators (AAEA). With both the Department of Education and the AAEA being on the Solution Tree team, what school administrator would balk at spending money on Solution Tree?

I would not have known about the contract if it had not been given to me by an individual involved in education. It seems the contract does not appear on the Department of Education’s Transparency dashboard with other Department of Education contracts. I wonder why.

Fortunately, someone found the contract on a federal website.

The Arkansas Department of Education contracted with the AAEA to have the AAEA assist in promoting Solution Tree. The contract had AAEA act as a passthrough to funnel most of the money to Solution Tree by the AAEA contracting with Solution Tree. Under the contract, the AAEA also hired school employees to be contractors to work with and promote the Solution Tree program. The AAEA benefited from the contract by receiving a 4.5% fee for administering the contract.

Here is how the three-year $5,089,750.14 contract allocated the money:

  • SOLUTION TREE – AAEA was directed to spend $3,075,019.20 of the funds on a contract with Solution Tree.
  • CONTRACTORS/PRACTITIONERS – Another large portion of the money was for the AAEA to hire school employees as contractors to work to further Solution Tree’s program in school districts. Some contractors were to promote the program in other schools. This contract included $1,440,000.00 to pay Arkansas Practitioner Contractors (school employees). It also included $105,000.00 for travel expenses by contractors and $234,000.00 for a Network Project Consultant who is also a practitioner.
  • AAEA – The remainder was allocated to AAEA with $219,175.84 as a 4.5% program management fee, and $16,555.10 for Solution Tree books and supplies.

Here is a copy of the contract.


Some members of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee are concerned that some school employees involved in selecting Solution Tree may have a conflict of interest by also working for Solution Tree.  The department’s contract with the AAEA takes the possibility of conflicts of interest and puts it on steroids.

First, the contract created a whole new group of school employees to have a financial interest in the success of Solution Tree’s program. Remember, under the contract, school employees are hired as contractors to promote and assist in Solution Tree’s success. This part of the contract might be characterized as essentially putting Solution Tree representatives in schools.  Perhaps the audit by the legislature will show how many school employees have been paid to be on the Solution Tree team, either by Solution Tree or through the AAEA contract.

Second, how does a school administrator say “no” to spending school money on Solution Tree when the administrator’s own association is promoting it and some of the school’s employees may be financially tied to Solution Tree?

Third, the contract created a group of school employees also beholden to the AAEA for extra money, since it was the AAEA who hired them to promote Solution Tree. Having a teacher beholden to the AAEA seems odd when the teacher’s own association may be on the opposite side of AAEA on some issues.


Is it commonplace for the state of Arkansas to award contracts to the AAEA? Even if it is, such a practice seems strange to me because the relationship between AAEA and state policy makers necessarily includes an adversarial relationship. One of the AAEA’s prime functions is to lobby the Governor, the Legislature, and the Department of Education on behalf of school administrators. With 237 school districts in the state, the AAEA is a powerful lobbying group. Some employees of the AAEA file as registered lobbyists, and the AAEA has also used lobbying firms to lobby on behalf of the association.

The AAEA lobbies the state concerning proposed laws, regulations, and policies. Not all of them are limited to education. For example, in 2023 one of the bills the AAEA supported was HB1610 which would have created loopholes to Arkansas’ open meetings requirement in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Fortunately, the bill did not pass.

Sometimes the AAEA supports a Governor’s agenda and sometimes will oppose it.  The same is true of bills proposed by a state legislator and regulations proposed by the Department of Education. Even other education associations may find themselves on the opposite side of the AAEA. For example, teachers and school administrators do not always find themselves on the same side of policies affecting teachers.

If you were a teacher or legislator who found yourself on the opposite side of the AAEA concerning legislation or a policy, how would you feel about the state boosting the AAEA with a $219K payment for administering a contract?

I remember attending a wrestling match at the VFW in Jonesboro back in the 1970’s and seeing wrestlers who fought as mortal enemies later pile in together in a station wagon to go back to Memphis.  The AAEA contract with the Department of Education reminds me of that station wagon.


On the AAEA website, you will see Solution Tree’s name prominently displayed on the AAEA main page in a list of corporate sponsors of AAEA. Solution Tree is listed as being at the highest level of sponsorship. But being a corporate sponsor doesn’t mean a corporation gets any favorable treatment. The association has lots of corporate sponsors. But because of the AAEA’s involvement in the contract to promote Solution Tree, its corporate sponsorship may become an item of discussion.


Perhaps the benefits from all the contracts with Solution Tree have been the best thing to come along since the invention of sliced bread. If so, maybe it will help explain why the Department of Education has essentially turned the Solution Tree Program into a joint public/private venture.

But is it the best thing since sliced bread? So far legislators are still looking for tangible proof of success. Senator Linda Chesterfield (D – Little Rock), 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.”


Since Solution Tree’s program is about teacher development, it would be beneficial to hear what teachers think about the time they spend in the Solution Tree program and whether it has been worth the money spent. Or better, to hear just from teachers who have not been paid to promote Solution Tree.

Perhaps that will be a future topic for discussion.

ICYMI: Education Vendor Rakes In Big Money – Raises Concern

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