No matter how they are characterized, dinners, trips and other perks provided by textbook publishers to school officials in any decision-making capacity immediately raise legal, if not ethical, questions. Sanseido Co. in Japan and Pearson Co. in the United States highlight the fine line between legitimate business practices and shady dealings.

When Sanseido recently apologized for entertaining school principals and providing them with “editing fees” in the hope of influencing the textbook selection process of local governments, it hoped to erase the stain on its reputation. That’s because in Japan publishers are not permitted to provide outsiders with a preview of any textbook subject to screening by local boards of education. It was violation of the vetting process that eventually led to Sanseido’s exposure. Ever since the company started publishing elementary school textbooks in 2009, it had arranged annual editorial meetings to which school principals were invited. Their hotel and dining expenses were fully covered, and they received compensation cloaked as editing fees.

But school principals were equally culpable. They can’t make a plausible case that they didn’t know why they were given special treatment. Only the most naive person would believe their version when it was quite evident that a quid pro quo existed.

Sanseido is not alone. Pearson Co. was outed by The New York Times in October 2011 for its involvement in providing free international trips to education commissioners whose states do business with the company. But the Pearson Foundation, the nonprofit arm of one of the nation’s largest educational publishers, denied any suggestion that the events were in any way “unethical or designed to enable Pearson to win contracts.” The problem was that the company’s business operations and its foundation are not nearly so separate.

Further casting aspersions on Pearson’s credibility was that the foundation’s tax returns for the two years prior to the breaking story left a blank on the line for listing “payments of travel or entertainment expenses for any federal, state or local public officials.” Under the federal tax code, a nonprofit foundation is forbidden from promoting its business interests.

But the education commissioners’ hands were not completely clean either. State laws prohibit accepting junkets paid for by private charities. But the Pearson Foundation made an annual grant to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the nonprofit group representing education commissioners.

It’s easy to dismiss the Sanseido and Pearson incidents as business as usual in the competitive textbook market. But the $4 billion elementary and high school textbook publishing market in the U.S. and its counterpart in Japan are too important to be written off as such.

The issue is compounded when ideology is involved in what textbooks are finally adopted. For example, the 15-member elected State Board of Education in Texas in 2013 was confronted with 14 biology textbooks submitted by Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill. A contentious debate arose when a number of the members of the panel did not accept evolution.

By the same token, the education ministry in Japan has a reputation for imposing its views on textbook adoption going back to 1982. For example, in 2006 it imposed strict government views on politically sensitive issues in textbooks, although it permitted math and science textbooks to include topics beyond the scope of the guidelines.

That’s why whatever textbooks finally make their way into classrooms in Japan and the U.S. will be a compromise that will satisfy no one completely. In the final analysis, it’s the price paid for doing business in a democracy.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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