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Oh, Brother: Emails from Jeb Bush’s Education Privatization Group Prioritize Profit Over Pupils

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In the Public Interest, a D.C.-based non-profit group, has released thousands of e-mails that link former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s education reform foundation, Chiefs for Change, to corporations and education officials who are attempting to help state legislators write laws that will directly benefit their organizations financially. The emails are primarily between Chiefs for Change and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), which both share a vision of for-profit education fueled by charter schools, online education and standardized testing. The groups share many of the same donors and officials as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is pushing for a similar “education” agenda.  

The ties between the groups and ALEC do not stop at surface similarities:

There are strong connections between FEE and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy:

Aptly named FEE, 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. And, they have pushed many of the same changes to the law, which benefit their corporate benefactors and satisfy the free market fundamentalism of the billionaires whose tax-deductible charities underwrite the agenda of these two groups.

FEE and ALEC have also 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. That distorted report card also rewards states that push ALEC’s beloved union-busting measures, while giving low grades to states with students who actually perform best on standardized knowledge tests.

The numerous emails show how Bush’s organization played matchmaker, linking corporate donors and policymakers with shared, far right education interests. In describing the emails, Donald Cohen, chair of the nonprofit In the Public Interest, 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.'

The emails described on In The Public Interest’s website reveal much:

* 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.

Companies should not be allowed to profit directly from the legislative changes they are trying to implement. Students are an afterthought in this money-only scenario. Among the states in which Chiefs for Change have been brokering lucrative meetings between education officials and corporations are Florida, New Mexico, Maine, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Louisiana. To get a better understanding of what these groups are trying to do, let’s use the example of emails concerning Bush’s home state of Florida:

FEE staff sought legislation that would count the state test, known as FCAT, as more than 50 percent 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 percent, but no more than 60 percent’ 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.

As we wrote in June, ALEC is trying to push model legislation that would rid the education system of school boards, thus allowing schools to become part of a corporate, for-profit wasteland. When their national efforts are paired with the drastic legislative initiatives being moved in the states by groups like Chiefs for Change, the future of education is only rendered more bleak. And children are the victims.

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