Sunday, July 8, 2007

Teacher Stipends and Bonuses for Educational Student Tours

I need some clarification, opinions, and experiences.

Quite frankly, I’m a bit frustrated and confused.

It's a question of ethics.

For the past several years, I have been designing, selling, and conducting educational student tour programs throughout the East Coast of the United States. Most of my schools are from the west coast and southwest. It’s been a very good season and the trips went well. Happily all my schools have rebooked for either 2008 or 2009. And now it is time to plan for the next spring season.

My frustration is with the concept of teacher stipends, bonuses, points, personal travel benefits, and other 'considerations' offered by the larger tour companies as well as the teachers who use them as leverage for their custom. To be specific: Student tour companies are bribing teachers for their business and teachers are now expecting these bribes.

I had been under the impression that public school teachers as public employees/servants were not permitted by law to accept these types of ‘gifts’ or become subcontractors of private companies that had anything to do with their public position; it seemed to me a conflict of interest, a lapse of fiduciary responsibility, and an abuse of one’s position for personal gain.

However, I was being a bit naïve, for over 80% of the teachers who had expressed interest in my programs asked about the rewards and benefits. Several, who did want to travel with me, after having been informed by me that I offer only a free trip and bona fide reimbursable expenses, changed their minds despite the fact that they preferred my program,. These teachers either returned to the company that they were unhappy with or found another company that would match or exceed their expectations.

Large student tour operators are luring teachers with all sorts of weekend ‘seminars’, early sign-up bonuses, 'scholarship' money, bonuses for three-year contracts, weekends in Costa Rica and California, as well as foreign travel. The companies are in such tight competition that teachers are using one against the other. It's become a feeding frenzy!

Some companies are bold enough to list these perks on their websites, unaware that this is an illegal practice. (If it's advertised, how could it be illegal?) One company explains that they hire teachers (to act as a tour guide for their own class) and that three-year contracts help with the cohesiveness of the programs. Most companies I have spoken with admit that they know it is wrong, but everyone is doing it!

The three-year contract is especially problematic as it binds not only the current grade/class, but it also binds the next grade as well as students who are not even enrolled in the school! Thus an 8th grade teacher also contracts for the 7th and 6th grades. (Those sixth-graders might come from several feeder schools.) Therefore the parents or school district have no choice of tour provider or program. But it gets even ickier when the teacher leaves or changes schools; the incoming teacher is expected to work with that company or the company puts pressure on the teacher and school! In my opinion these multi-year contracts should be unlawful, and unenforceable. (There are no real benefits to the travel program content or price for a multi-year contract, it only benefits the company and the teacher/administrator who is getting the kick-back.)

There should be a bidding system, not just for price and service, but for real educational content.

After talking this over with the companies that contract me, we felt that these practices were corrupt and led to more corruption. We would not condone nor participate in such practices. It was not surprising to me that I found that every state in the US and province in Canada had the same law and interpretation pertaining to public employees. Ohio had the most concise explanation; (Ohio Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion 2000-04) I can only surmise that it had become a problem in that state as they were specifically targeting the Washington, DC trips.

Typically these trips are well over $1000. Several of my trips because of of the high cost of airfare from some cities on the west coast, the quality of hotels requested, and length of the trip, are over $2000. It’s easy to hide a couple of hundred dollars from such a large pricetag. Parents and school boards have no real idea how the money is distributed; they trust the teacher/administrator/organizer, who is usually the one who chooses the company, to give them the best value and content for the students.

But sadly, these organizers are not trustworthy. Some teachers/administrators expect at least $50 per student, but the majority are well over the $100-$400 mark. That doesn’t include the vacation weekends, early sign-up contract bonuses, commissions for finding new schools that will travel, or other personal requests. Some ask for 'scholarship money' and it is up to their discretion how they will use it. Again, a 1099 is sent to the teacher./organizer. ( In reality, if there is to be money factored into the price of the trip for scholarships, it should go to the school and not to the teacher.)

If the school board, administration, and parents feel that the teacher should be compensated, then that compensation should be upfront and go through the school district and not a private company.

One high school teacher in LA has become a real entrepreneur by incorporating himself and branching out by recruiting the middle schools in his area to travel under his auspices. . He teaches in an affluent area and so the parents don’t question the program; they have no idea how he cuts the education and just dazzles them with good hotels and front row seats for the Broadway musical. He never tells the parents that he doesn’t purchase tickets to Colonial Williamsburg, but simply gives his students two hours to walk up and down Duke of Gloucester Street to shop and take photos. (No wonder his students think Williamsburg is boring, they neither get an educational tour nor the evening programs!) While the students do have fun, the experience is not as full or challenging as it could be.

Another teacher of a prestigious private school has been running trips for years and told me he receives the equivalent of more than half his teaching salary for running his ‘blitzkrieg’ trip! A school administrator of a very large private school is getting $100,000 for running all his trips (several grades) through the same company.

And even faith-based schools are not exempt from giving into temptation. A Pastor who was the principal of a parochial school was getting a substantial sum and other 'considerations' for his yearly 8-day convoy of multiple buses, which included several schools combined. In fact, one very large, purportedly Christian tour company , sends a former Lutheran principal around to sell the program to Lutheran schools; he has been known to offer a great deal of money and incentives to get the business! These trips should be a ministry, instead it has become reminiscent of dove sellers and moneychangers.

These teachers/administrators all had the same mantra: The parents don't care, they just write the checks! While these are private schools and not subject to public law, isn’t there still something wrong here?

Where do the companies get the money for all these payoffs? It comes from cutting the quality of the program. or inflating the price. It’s as simple as that. I've worked in these offices, I know.; it's the major reason I'm now an independent contractor.

These payoffs and incentives are sub-rosa. Parents do not realize that under-the-table arrangements have been made with the teachers or administrators. Those who receive1099's become subcontractors of that tour company. Isn’t that a blatant conflict of interest?

In the meantime, parents are fundraising, taking out loans, and even second jobs so their children can take this trip. They are expecting the best value for a truly educational trip and instead are being deceived and cheated. I wonder how parents would react if they found out that the teacher or administrator was putting a percentage of their money into his/her pocket?

It has also been detrimental to the integrity of the student tour industry. Some smaller companies who are working within the law and best practices, cannot compete with the larger companies and have been forced out of business; others have chosen to engage in these practices in order to stay in business.

In an era where we are holding our public officials to the highest ethical standards, why are we not doing the same with our public school teachers and administrators? We shouldn’t accept anyone taking bribes and payoffs in exchange for a contract.

It is also just as illegal for a company to offer these incentives to public employees as it is for public employees to accept them.

And it doesn't matter whether this is on or off school time according to the law, it's considered an abuse of position.


One of the teachers I had worked with when I was a tour guide with one of the large companies is a social studies and civics teacher who wanted a more educational and customized program. He was delighted when I contacted him and we eventually met in California for dinner. He was extremely unhappy with his present company because of the increasingly poor quality of service, staff, hotels, and there wasn't any added educational content to the sightseeing. After custom designing a trip for him that included the overnight Civil War camp, (which he had wanted but had been denied by the other company) and having him write to me that he loved the program and was ready to travel with me, he then asked about his ‘cut’ and made several additional demands. That’s when I told him about my talk with the companies I represented as well as his state's law. Here is his justification and rationalization:

I am also sorry to say, as you may have suspected, that
I will not be able to travel with your new company in 2006.
This saddens me greatly because I was looking forward to
traveling with you again. If the situation ever changes, please
do not hesitate to call me. Perhaps a "cap" on stipends would
be more realistic way of dealing with the unpleasant situation.
I can't think of anyone who is in education to get rich (if they are
they're fools) but giving up a week of vacation each year and being
responsible for scores of teens for a week requires a decent and
dependable level of compensation, There's no such thing as a free lunch.

It's shameful; I thought that he had planned these trips for the benefit of his students.

For another article on Student Tour Company Ethics please click here.
Music teachers and band directors are also under scrutiny as exposed in


Alasandra said...

This is so disheartening. I can't imagine how disgusted you must be about it.

As a parent I would care where the money was going. I know parents who scrimp and save so their kids can go on what they belive to be educational trips; they would be outraged to know the teacher is getting a kick back.

If teachers are not willing to plan and go on the trips for the benefit of their students without expecting a kick back prehaps parents will take over the task. At the very least they need to be honest about how much money they are getting for the trip.

The Tour Marm said...

Dear Alasandra,

There is no law against parents receiving a commission (as long as they are not connected with the school) and many do for organizing the trip.

Most of these parents are organizing the trip because either the teachers are too busy, or the school/district won't support the trip. Otherwise, the students would not be able to travel at all.

The school cannot be used to promote these trips, even so much as distributing literature, using the copier, or having meetings.

Some parents have banded together into booster clubs for fundraising purposes.

In that case it is imperative for each member of the group to take out travel/medical/cancellation insurance underwritten by a bona fide insurance company (not the tour company).

But yes, it is disheartening.

Sandy said...

Although we homeschool, I have run into this as well. My children sing in the symphony children's chorus, and the previous director took the students on an elaborate tour of Europe every two years, where they sang in empty cathedrals for 10 days and did some sight-seeing along the way. The director was the recipient of many "perks", and because of this money-making venture, was asked to resign by the symphony board. He had the support of the wealthiest parents however, and began a competing children's chorus (which still tours Europe every two years). Our children's chorus managed to survive and is thriving again, but the whole episode was very upsetting for the parents and perplexing to the students. What a far cry from my wonderful high school Latin teacher, Maureen O'Donnell, who led her students across Italy every summer and received little in return beyond the affection and gratitude of the scores of students who learned to share her passion for classical culture. I am very thankful for people like you who still have both passion and integrity.

The Tour Marm said...

The sad part is that most people don't realize that this practice is wrong, unless it is a politician.

I wish the well-heeled parents would understand that they are being taken advantage of by these people and their children are being cheated. I should think they would be indignant.

Thanks for your tale of woe and your kinds words of support.

I'm glad to hear that your chorus is doing well.