Corporate Interests Pay to Play to Shape Education Policy, Reap profits

Emails Show Bush-Led Organization's ALEC-Like Role in State Policymaking

Emails between the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), founded and chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and state education officials show that the foundation is writing state education laws and regulations in ways that could benefit its corporate funders. The emails, obtained through public records requests, reveal that the organization, sometimes working through its Chiefs For Change affiliate, wrote and edited laws, regulations and executive orders, often in ways that improved profit opportunities for the organization's financial backers.

"Testing companies and for-profit online schools see education as big business," said In the Public Interest Chair Donald Cohen. "For-profit companies are hiding behind FEE and other business lobby organizations they fund to write laws and promote policies that enrich the companies."

The emails conclusively reveal that FEE staff acted to promote their corporate funders' priorities, and demonstrate the dangerous role that corporate money plays in shaping our education policy. Correspondence in Florida, New Mexico, Maine, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Louisiana paint a graphic picture of corporate money distorting democracy.

The correspondence is available at:
• Rhode Island: http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/node/2746
• Oklahoma: http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/node/2745
• New Mexico: http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/node/2744
• Maine: http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/node/2743
• Louisiana: http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/node/2742
• Florida: http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/node/2741

Most concerning are the findings that reveal:

• In New Mexico, FEE acted as a broker to organize meetings between their corporate donors and individual Chiefs.

• Maine moved the FEE policy agenda through legislation and executive order that would remove barriers to online education and in some cases would require online classes - including eliminating class size caps and student-teacher ratios, allowing public dollars to flow to online schools and classes, eliminate ability of local school districts to limit access to virtual schools.

• In Florida, FEE helped write legislation that would increase the use of a proprietary test (FCAT) under contract to Pearson, an FEE donor.

• Foundation for Excellence in Education CEO Patricia Levesque urged state officials to introduce SendHub, a communications tool, into their state's schools. News reports indicate that Levesque's boss, Jeb Bush, is an investor in SendHub.

 

“These emails show a troubling link between Jeb Bush's effort to lobby for ‘reforms’ through his statewide Foundation for Florida's Future, his national Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the powerful corporations who want access to billions of our tax dollars by reshaping public education policies just to create markets for themselves - none of which is in the best interest of our children,” said Kathleen Oropeza, a Florida parent. 

 

State Highlights

Florida 

• 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.

Louisiana

• An April 26, 2011, email indicates that Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, through its Chiefs for Change project, had engaged John Bailey, a director of Dutko Grayling. CEO Patricia Levesque wrote to State Schools Superintendent Paul Pastorek:

o John Bailey, whom you met over the phone, will be on the call to provide an update on reauthorization discussions on the Hill. He is going to be on contract with the Foundation to assist with the Chiefs' DC activities in light of Angie's departure.

o Dutko has been accused of working with industry front groups in the past. For example, Dutko worked with AIDS Responsibility Project (ARP), an industry-supported effort described by an HIV/AIDS policy activist as a 'drug industry-funded front group. '"

• There are records of the Foundation for Excellence in Education reimbursing Paul Pastorek and John White, the two men who led the state's education department, for their travel to Orlando and Washington, D.C., for events sponsored by FEE and the Chiefs for Change.
Maine
• As the Portland Press-Herald has reported, the emails were evidence of "a partnership formed between Maine's top education official and a foundation entangled with the very companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the policies it advocates."

• FEE Deputy Director Deirdre Finn wrote, "We can definitely help develop an executive order," referring to what became a February 2012 executive order by Gov. LePage directing his education commissioner to develop a plan to open the door to more cyber-schooling in Maine. The elements of the order originated with the Digital Learning Council, a group co-chaired by Bush and funded by FEE donors K12 Inc, the Pearson Foundation, and McGraw-Hill.

• The Foundation for Educational Excellence also acted as a conduit for ALEC model legislation and policies. LePage's order originated at ALEC, was tailored for Maine by the FEE and sent to Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who subsequently forwarded it to LePage to release unchanged. "Resolution adopting the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning" is a model bill introduced by Arizona Sen. Rich Crandall at the 2011 ALEC Annual Conference.

New Mexico

• FEE provides its donors-including for-profit digital education companies-access to the chiefs. A draft agenda for the Excellence in Action 2011 Summit blocked off two hours for "Chiefs for Change donor meetings" Another draft agenda for the meeting allocated nearly three hours to "Chiefs for Change donor meetings" The donors for the summit were The Walton Family Foundation, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The Broad Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation, Susan and Bill Oberndorf, GlobalScholar, Target, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Microsoft, State Farm, IQity, McGraw-Hill Education, Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, Intel, Pearson Foundation, Apex Learning, ETS, Electronic Arts, Koret Foundation, SMART Technologies, K12, Morgridge Family Foundation, Charter Schools USA, and Connections Academy. Demand for donor time was so high that Patricia Levesque wrote that she had to turn down opportunities for the chiefs to meet other representatives from companies.

• FEE staff served as advisors to acting education commissioner Hanna Skandera.FEE, and, by extension, its donors, had great influence over New Mexico legislation. In a Jan., 2011 email, Skandera directs a staffer from the legislature to forward all education bills to FEE's Christy Hovanetz for edits: "Can you send all Governor's office ed bill language to Christy, including social promotion?" Another FEE staffer, Mary Laura Bragg wrote to Skandera, "I'm at your beck and call."

• The Foundation sought to make connections between Skandera (as well as the other Chiefs for Change) and the Hume Foundation for funds for digital learning projects from the Hume Foundation that "must flow through the Foundation for Excellence in Education as a project-restricted grant." The Santa Fe New Mexican reported in Oct. 21 that Skandera had indeed for such a grant, which ultimately could lead to digital learning legislation favorable to FEE funders Connections Academy and K-12 Inc.

• The emails indicate that FEE paid for Skandera's travel, reimbursing New Mexico $3382.91 for her expenses, including trip to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress.

Oklahoma

• An Oct. 7, 2011, email indicates that State Superintendent Janet Barresi was a guest of Louis A. Piconi-founder & SVP of Strategic Activities, Apangea Learning Inc., a distance learning company-at an event Piconi hosted for Jeb Bush and Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett. Apangea is not a known funder of FEE, but Apangea and Barresi contributed to Bennett's campaign.
• As in other states, FEE staff had great control over state education policies, writing and editing regulations for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

*For unknown reasons, Barresi's response to an email from Patricia Levesque about SendHub was not included in Oklahoma's response to the public records request. Instead, that was found in the documents from Louisiana. A Louisiana official was cc'd on the email. A description of Barresi's response is in the Rhode Island section of this document.

Rhode Island

• In February 2012, Patricia Levesque, using her Foundation for Excellence in Education email address, urged state officials to introduce SendHub, a communications tool, into their state's schools. News reports indicate that Levesque's boss, Jeb Bush, was an investor in the start-up by the fall of 2012.

• An e-mail chain between RI Ed Commissioner Deborah Gist and FEE's Patricia Levesque shows Gist trying to obtain a funding grant from the Kern Foundation, which was denied because of the "political environment" in RI.

• Gist also sought funding from the Hume Foundation for a digital learning initiative. FEE staff made it a point to connect Gist, as well as other state education commissioners, with Hume to launch digital learning projects.