Emails Show Corporate Influence, Conflict of Interest in Education Reform

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Frederick Reese

A mass release of thousands of emails last week by a nonprofit group draws the spotlight on the way corporations are attempting to influence education laws in this country.

These emails between the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) — a national education policy organization founded by former Florida governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush — and Chiefs for Change — a conservative think tank comprising current and former state education commissioners from Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Tennessee committed to educational reform — suggest an organized attempt to craft laws that directly benefit FEE’s corporate sponsorship.

FEE is based on Bush’s agenda of school choice, online education, literacy by third grade by means of retention of students that do not meet basic skill requirements and teacher/school accountability by means of standardized tests.
In The Public Interest — the nonprofit that released the emails — argues that the education companies, such as Pearson, are forging agendas that benefit their bottom lines at the cost of the public education system. Standardized tests, online education and remedial tutoring materials are all products marketed and sold by these companies.

It is believed that FEE received sponsorship from K12, Pearson, Amplify and the College Board. FEE, as a 501(c)(3) organization, is not required to disclose its donors.
The Center for Media and Democracy feels that FEE is strongly affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). “Bush’s group is backed by many of the same for-profit school corporations that have funded ALEC and vote as equals with its legislators on templates to change laws governing America’s public schools.”

“FEE is also bankrolled by many of the same hard-right foundations bent on privatizing public schools that have funded ALEC,” the Center for Media and Democracy continues. “FEE and ALEC also have had some of the same ‘experts’ as members or staff, part of the revolving door between right-wing groups. They have also collaborated on the annual ALEC education “report card” that grades states’ allegiance to their policy agenda higher than actual student performance.”

Some of the more troubling emails includes FEE agreeing to broker meetings between corporate donors and Chiefs for Change executives in New Mexico and a push — through legislation and executive orders — to remove the barriers to — and, in some cases, mandate the use of — online education by removing class size caps, allowing public school money to go to online schools, and eliminating local school districts’ prerogative to limit access to online classes in Maine.

Also included in the emails are a push to use SendHub — a communications tool that Jeb Bush is an investor of — in Florida’s schools and the insistence that Florida’s standardized test — the FCAT — counts for more than 50 percent of the state’s school accountability measure.

The FCAT is made by Pearson, who holds a $250 million contract with the state and is a major sponsor of FEE through its foundation.

The complete searchable catalog of FEE-Chiefs of Change emails is available at the In the Public Interest website.

FEE has been involved in the crafting legislation with a high level of success. Fourteen states have passed legislation calling for the retention of third graders that cannot read at a minimum level. Bush is cited as a leader in education in part due to the success he was able to achieve in raising literacy levels and reading scores for Florida students during his tenure. His success with low-income and minority students won him the laurels of both parties.
His educational agenda has been adopted in part by 36 states.

Critics, however, point to the high percentage of Florida graduates that require remedial math and reading assistance. In addition, few of Bush’s current agenda items, such as online education, can be clearly linked to the bump in reading scores in Florida. FEE has raised $19 million from corporate sponsorship towards promoting Bush’s agenda.