April 30, 2014 -- Looking for advice on how to spend $2 billion for schoolhouse technology, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo turned to one of the men who built Google into a global colossus.
Now critics are asking whether it’s appropriate for Eric Schmidt, the tech company’s executive chairman, to be recommending projects that his company could well benefit from.
“It’s a flat-out conflict,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. “Google is getting its top people into places they can throw around some influence.”
Cuomo announced earlier this month that Schmidt would be the only tech expert on a three-person advisory panel -- the Smart Schools Commission -- charged with helping the governor’s administration spend the cash to be raised through a bond issue on the November ballot. Other members of the panel include are education expert Geoffrey Canada and Constance Evelyn, the schools superintendent in the upstate New York community of Auburn.
When the governor made his announcement, he said money from the referendum would, among other things, be “used for enhanced education technology in schools, with eligible projects including the purchase of classroom technology for use by students and teachers, as well as infrastructure improvements to bring high-speed broadband to schools and communities in their school district.”
Cuomo spokesman Matt Wing insisted, though, that Schmidt’s role would not give Google a leg up. Wing told ABC News that Cuomo sought out Schmidt – not the other way around – and that the executive is going to be far removed from government decisions that could benefit Google or harm the company’s competitors.
“New Yorkers are lucky that Eric Schmidt is volunteering his time to serve on the Smart Schools Commission, which will provide broad recommendations to help create 21st century classrooms in our schools,” Wing said. “The commission he is on is purely advisory and will not be recommending specific products. Instead school purchases will be determined by guidelines set by an independent panel, individual needs of school districts and a procurement process specifically designed to ensure taxpayer dollars go to the best bid. Any representations to the contrary are simply wrong.”
Any programs or initiatives suggested by the panel would have to be approved by a three-person board led by the state’s education commissioner. And any spending would have to go through the normal procurement process. State advisory panels have, however, been controversial in the past and their members are subject to many of New York’s rules governing conflicts of interest.
Simpson, and others currently questioning Schmidt’s appointment, said the Google leader will be able to play an unparalleled role in setting spending priorities in educational technology, an area that has been identified as a key growth sector for the ubiquitous internet company.
“If the governor were sincere about having technologists advise him, he would have gone to some highly respected academic technologists or even some other technologists” from other companies, Simpson said.
E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, told ABC News he doesn't know how an observer would conclude there's no conflict here. Schmidt "is a vendor. It's pretty clear to be there's a conflict. This is an incredible blind spot on the governor's part," McMahon said.
Wing stressed that all voices will be heard in the Smart Schools process even though Schmidt is the only tech expert or executive on the panel.
Contacted by ABC News, Google declined to comment and referred questions back to the governor’s office.
Schmidt, who has been with Google since 2001, was CEO of the company as it grew from start-up to behemoth. Schmidt, 59, has a doctorate in computer science from UC Berkeley, has advised President Obama and is a member of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.