Educators and education organizations are weighing whether to cut off support for the Pennies for Peace program of the Central Asia Institute after allegations surfaced that Greg Mortenson, the co-author of the best-selling nonfiction book, Three Cups of Tea, mismanaged money collected by thousands of schoolchildren.
The news program “60 Minutes” broadcast allegations last week that Mr. Mortenson, the executive director of the Central Asia Institute, which runs Pennies for Peace, fabricated two major stories about himself in his book, one of which has been a jumping-off point for thousands of schoolchildren to collect money to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The news program also alleged that in 2009, the Bozeman, Mont.-based Central Asia Institute spent less money on schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan than on “programs” in the United States, including activities to promote Three Cups of Tea and another of Mr. Mortenson’s books, Stones Into Schools.
A 75-page e-book, Three Cups of Deceit, written by well-known journalist Jon Krakauer and published April 18, contends that Mr. Mortenson’s books and public statements are “permeated with falsehoods.” The e-book said Mr. Mortenson has misled schoolchildren through his promotion of the Pennies for Peace program. It reports, for example, that in 2009, students donated $1.7 million to Pennies for Peace, but the Central Asia Institute spent only $612,000 on building or supporting schools. The exposé noted that Mr. Mortenson says in public appearances that “every penny” of every donation made to Pennies for Peace supports schools.
Mr. Mortenson has “repeatedly subverted efforts by his Montana-based staff to track effectively how many schools have been built, how much each school actually costs, and how many schools are up and running,” writes Mr. Krakauer.
In an April 22 email to Education Week, Anne Beyersdorfer, a spokeswoman for the Central Asia Institute, said every penny collected by schoolchildren goes to schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She said schoolchildren raised $2.5 million through Pennies for Peace in 2009 and 2010. The Pennies for Peace income and expenditure reported by Mr. Krakauer for 2009 is correct, she said, but added that “the balance remains in the Pennies for Peace fund for use as new schools are built, and educational needs are determined by communities we serve.”
Ms. Beyersdorfer said Pennies for Peace funds have never been used to buy books written by Mr. Mortenson. When asked what financial information she could provide to allay educators’ concerns that schoolchildren’s money was not well spent, she referred Education Week to “field reports” in an online publication of the institute, “Journey of Hope.”
The most recent “Journey of Hope” report [PDF] says that by November 2010, the institute had established or significantly supported more than 170 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the report provides more detailed information only about several of the schools, and tells what it cost to build and run only one of them.
Ms. Beyersdorfer included a statement that is part of the institute’s standard response to inquiries about how it handled donations: “The CAI board of directors and senior management team have determined that a very thorough, transparent, and objective assessment of CAI’s programs and operations is needed, and we are taking steps to define that process and begin.”
Montana’s attorney general, Steve Bullock, has launched an inquiry into the operations of the Central Asia Institute. “While looking into this issue, my office will not jump to any conclusions—but we have a responsibility to make sure charitable assets are used for their intended purposes,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Mortenson didn’t grant interviews to “60 Minutes” or to Mr. Krakauer, but he said in a Q&A published April 18 by Outside magazine that inaccuracies in his books are a result partly of the condensing of the time when some events took place.
‘Hold On to the Money’
The Washington-based National Education Association Foundation is among groups that have promoted Pennies for Peace. Along with the Pearson Foundation, the NEA Foundation supported the creation of a curriculum and “toolkit” that teachers have used to accompany students’ reading of books by Mr. Mortenson and fundraising for Pennies for Peace. Harriet Sanford, the president and chief executive officer of the foundation, said the philanthropy gave Pennies for Peace a $10,000 planning grant in 2007 to make the toolkit but hasn’t given any money to the program since then.
John I. Wilson, the executive director of the NEA, said in an April 22 interview that he will discuss with Ms. Sanford the possible suspension of the teachers’ union’s promotion of Pennies for Peace “until we get all the facts.” He added, “I think there is enough out there [raising questions] to justify a suspension, but we’re not willing to throw them under the bus yet. We don’t know the motives of folks who are making these allegations.”
As a first step, he said, the NEA might remove links on its website to Pennies for Peace and later decide whether to permanently withdraw its stamp of approval.
Mr. Wilson’s advice to teachers who are backing students in fundraising for Pennies for Peace is to “finish the project but hold on to the money.”
Checking the Facts
Among the materials in the toolkit is a curriculum resource guide that takes for granted the truth of Mr. Mortenson’s story about how he got involved in building schools in Pakistan. Three Cups of Tea says he stumbled into the village of Korphe while weak and lost after trying to climb the Himalayan mountain of K2, was nursed back to health by the villagers, left and then returned as soon as he could arrange a ride, and promised to build the villagers a school. That story gets a lot of play in Three Cups of Tea and the gist of it is repeated in a version of the book for young readers widely read in schools.
But Mr. Krakauer says Mr. Mortenson didn’t visit the village of Korphe until a year after his climbing expedition and, in fact, he initially promised to build a school in the village of Khane in Pakistan but never delivered on that promise. Instead, Mr. Mortenson built a school in Korphe.
Mr. Mortenson stood by his story that he visited Korphe on the way back from climbing K2 in his interview with Outside, but said that the first visit was for only a few hours, though the book gives the impression he stayed overnight. Mr. Mortenson said in the magazine interview that during his second visit to Korphe, a year later, he talked with the village leader about a school, while the book gives the impression he returned almost immediately.
Comprehension questions and answers in the Pennies for Peace curriculum guide include the following: “How did Dr. Greg end up in Korphe? (He wanted to climb the mountain K2, but lost his way.) How did the villagers help Dr. Greg? How did Dr. Greg help the villagers? (They nursed Dr. Greg back to health. Dr. Greg helped to heal the sick of Korphe.)”
When Education Week asked the Pearson Foundation, whose logo is on the curriculum guide, whether it is continuing to support Pennies for Peace, a spokeswoman sent an email saying that Three Cups of Tea is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, which is owned by Pearson. The statement in the email said: “Greg Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. ‘60 Minutes’ is a serious news organization, and in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.”
Where It Started
Tom Westerhaus is the superintendent of the 3,000-student River Falls school district, in Wisconsin, where the Pennies for Peace program got started. He said in a phone interview late last week that students at Westside Elementary School in his district began collecting pennies for the Central Asia Institute to build schools when Greg Mortenson’s mother, Jerene Mortenson, was principal there. He said Greg Mortenson spoke to students in the school. The Central Asia Institute says that happened in 1994. The teaching staff made the decision to support the project, he said.
Just this spring, Mr. Westerhaus said, children in his district raised money for Pennies for Peace, and the money was passed on to the organization. He recalls it was less than $1,000.
Mr. Westerhaus has watched the “60 Minutes” episode, but he said he’s still reserving judgment on whether the Central Asia Institute has misused funds. Should children from his district collect money in the future, he said, it will be his responsibility to be sure the money is “well handled.”
In a column posted on the district’s website on April 21, Mr. Westerhaus wrote, “I personally believe that good work has been done by Mortenson to promote the education of Pakistani and Afghan children by Pennies for Peace. My expectation is that the money we’ve raised is being used for building schools, but if I find out differently, we will definitely have to reconsider our involvement with the program.”
Mr. Wilson of the NEA observed that many people have been touched by the book Three Cups of Tea and Mr. Mortenson’s work because “it’s a great story and a great cause.” He said he hopes the mission is salvaged from the current controversy. “The last thing you want to do is deny boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan from having schools. Somebody has to fill that void.”