By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A new data dump of emails from Jeb Bush’s education Foundation — a group aimed at passing school reforms in states nationwide — is heavily linked to the corporate interests that fund their efforts. In many cases, the corporate funders are benefiting greatly from the reforms Bush’s foundation is selling to states.
The e-mails are between the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and a group Bush set up called Chiefs for Change, whose members are current and former state education commissioners who support Bush’s agenda of school reform, which includes school choice, online education, retention of third-graders who can’t read and school accountability systems based on standardized tests. That includes evaluating teachers based on student test scores and grading schools A-F based on test scores. John White of Louisiana is a current member, as is Tony Bennett, the new commissioner of Florida who got the job after Indiana voters rejected his Bush-style reforms last November and tossed him out of office.
Donald Cohen, chair of the nonprofit In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization and responsible for contracting in the public sector, said the e-mails show how education companies that have been known to contribute to the foundation are using the organization “to move an education agenda that may or not be in our interests but are in theirs.”
He said companies ask the foundation to help state officials pass laws and regulations that make it easier to expand charter schools, require students to take online education courses, and do other things that could result in business and profits for them. The e-mails show, Cohen said, that Bush’s foundation would often do this with the help of Chiefs for Change and other affiliated groups.
According to the In the Public Interest, Bush’s foundation helped write laws that would make the use of a proprietary test called FCAT more prevalent. FCAT is a under contract with Pearson, which happens to be a FEE donor. Through the years, educators and experts have questioned the effectiveness of FCAT, which some educators and students have said made a negative change to public education in Florida.
Here are some of the other impacts made by FEE in Florida pointed out by In The Public Interest:
FEE staff sought legislation that would count the state test, known as FCAT, as more than 50% of the state’s school accountability measure. FEE staffer Patricia Levesque wrote to a state official that she had negotiated the related language with state legislators, who were now “asking for the following which, the Foundation completely supports: FCAT shall be ‘at least 50%, but no more than 60%’ of a high school’s grade.” Pearson, the company that holds the $250 million FCAT contract and sponsors FEE through its foundation, has an obvious financial stake in ensuring that FCAT continues to be at the center of Florida’s education system.
Levesque writes, “I think we need to add a sec onto this bill to give you/the department authority to set a state‐approved list of charter operators or private providers so districts can’t pick poor performers to implement turnaround.” At least one FEE donor, the for-profit Florida-based Charter Schools USA, could benefit from being placed on such a state-approved list.
Charter Schools USA also could benefit from a “parent trigger” law, the passage of which, as Nadia Hagberg of FEE wrote, was the goal of a partnership between Bush’s Florida-based organization (the Foundation for Florida’s Future) and Parent Revolution: “The Foundation for Florida’s Future worked closely with [Parent Revolution] throughout the process in Florida and they proved to be an invaluable asset.” Parent trigger, which failed to pass during Florida’s last legislative session, is a mechanism to convert neighborhood schools to charter schools.
A few months ago, Reuters analyzed “the depth and durability of the gains in Florida,” which have been heavily questioned in the past few years. Mostly, the article argued that many of the more impactful changes (vouchers, required online classes, etc.) did not contribute to any improvement on test scores.
However, Bush’s foundation has effectively raised about $19 million dollars through the years from companies that benefit from more schools using online classes or vouchers.