California’s top education official helped an exclusive private boarding school in China aimed at getting the children of elite families into American universities

Steve Ma with the Pegasus California School emblem and school and California and China flags next to him on a pale yellow background
  • An Insider investigation has found that some of California’s highest-ranking education officials and leading public universities worked closely with a swaggering entrepreneur who launched a private boarding school for elite families in China.
  • Pegasus California School, in Qingdao, billed itself as part of the Val Verde Unified School District in Riverside County, California, and bestowed Val Verde diplomas on graduates to help them get into the University of California system.
  • Val Verde’s superintendent said at a school board meeting that the University of California at Riverside had guaranteed admission to every Pegasus graduate, a charge the school denies.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

An Insider investigation has found that some of California’s highest-ranking education officials and leading public universities worked closely with a businessman named Steven Ma to help set up an exclusive private boarding school in Qingdao, China, called Pegasus California School. The school, which cost roughly $34,ooo per year, purported to be a replica of a public high school in California, and was nominally a part of the Val Verde Unified School District in Riverside County, California.

California’s former top education official and a former state secretary of education were involved in the effort, as were senior Val Verde officials and a retired senior staffer within the University of California Office of the President, the headquarters of the UC system, who continued to work as as a contractor for the University of California at Irvine even as Pegasus was paying him to help its students gain admission.

The public servants, records show, gave Ma and his associates official state appointments and helped grease the skids to give Pegasus students a leg up in the increasingly cutthroat University of California admissions process. Not only did UC Irvine offer summer-school programs specially arranged for Pegasus students, it dispatched admissions staffers to the school’s China campus to talk to students and their parents, and specifically monitored Pegasus students’ progress through the admissions cycle. At UC Riverside, the ties were even closer: The university pledged to work with Pegasus students to help them become competitive applicants and offered them special permission to submit applications after the deadline had passed.

Val Verde’s superintendent publicly proclaimed that UC Riverside guaranteed admission to all Pegasus graduates, according to the minutes of a public-school board meeting. One former California education official described the arrangement, if it exists, as “appalling.”

In an interview, Ma said Pegasus students never received preferential treatment from California education officials, and said the notion that any Pegasus students were guaranteed admission to UC schools was “ridiculous and false.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President said that UC admissions staffers do not “guarantee, nor would our campuses honor, any promise of admission. Applicants are evaluated based on a comprehensive review of their record…. It is concerning that an individual not affiliated with the UC system may have misrepresented those discussions without our knowledge or authorization.”

In response to Insider’s inquiries about Pegasus, a California Department of Education spokesman said the department has referred the matter to the state attorney general for investigation.

“State Superintendent [of Public Instruction Tony] Thurmond was not aware of these allegations before they surfaced in . . . Insider’s reporting, and asked the California Department of Education on May 6 to refer this matter to the state Attorney General’s office and the Fair Political Practices Commission for further review.

“It is imperative that these serious allegations of misuse of state funds and conflict of interest during or after the former Superintendent’s term, or whether the relationship between the school district and the Chinese school are legal, be reviewed by the appropriate outside agencies with authority to investigate this matter.”

READ OUR FULL STORY: Insider investigation reveals officials helped sell access to California public schools to Chinese elite

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