Alec MacGillis’ in depth report, Testing Time: Jeb Bush’s Educational Experiment, in The New Yorker this week, doesn’t really add to the facts Lindsay Layton recounted in the Washington Post earlier this month. Layton described Jeb Bush’s education legacy as governor of Florida and founder and chair of the non-profit Foundation for Excellence in Education: “issuing A-to-F report cards for schools, using taxpayer vouchers for tuition at private schools, expanding charter schools, requiring third-graders to pass a reading test… encouraging online and virtual charter schools,” and (she quotes Jeb’s own words), “fighting government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies… that trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”
But you won’t be reading MacGillis’ new profile for the facts, which have been well established by now. MacGillis’s focus is to connect Jeb’s public work as Florida’s governor with the many non-profit and for-profit endeavors he has launched since he left office. Jeb Bush has after all made education a centerpiece of his work for many years now. While “Bush is being viewed as a moderate in the emerging Presidential field,” MacGillis describes the analysis of an adviser to former President George W. Bush: “Jeb is more introverted and more ideological than both his father, George H.W. Bush, whose policies are driven more by personal associations than by doctrine, and his brother whose conservatism is more instinctual than considered. It was Jeb who signed the nation’s first ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense law, and fought to keep Terri Schiavo on life support.” This is the backdrop against which MacGillis traces Bush’s long record as a school privatizer, testing enthusiast, and proponent of disruptive—often on-line—innovation.
Jeb Bush is quoted as bragging, “Florida has the largest, most vibrant charter-school movement in the country.” MacGillis continues, “By 2006, Jeb’s last year in office, there were more than three hundred charter schools (for-profit and nonprofit) in Florida, with more than a hundred thousand students, most of them in big metropolitan areas such as Miami and Tampa. But the state made only sporadic efforts to track their performance. The 1996 law called for annual statewide reports on the schools, but none were produced until November of 2006. Test scores in lower grades were found to be slightly higher than at traditional pubic schools, and slightly lower in the higher grades. The reading test-score gap between black students and white students in elementary grades decreased at about the same rate as in traditional schools but in the charter high schools the gap widened. However, direct comparisons were difficult, because the charters took about twenty percent fewer low-income and special-needs students. It was even harder to track the impact of vouchers, because the private and parochial schools that accepted them were not required to administer state tests. As Bush saw it, some schools and companies were inferior, but that situation would sort itself out over time.”
Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, launched in 2008 after he left public office, is described as what ed tech companies like Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s Amplify and Pearson, the testing and publishing giant, have come to count on as “an ideal platform to promote a range of ideas and products to state officials.” Patricia Levesque, the Foundation’s director, has used her influence to connect state commissioners of education who are part of the Foundation’s Chiefs for Change with leaders of corporations promoting on-line education, curricula and software and to make the Chiefs for Change into sales people for these products in other states. We learn of Bush’s business connections to Voyager, the company that created the ill-fated Reading First—the phonics-based reading curriculum adopted by the U. S. Department of Education under No Child Left Behind, one of the earliest mandates of the law that was eliminated because Reading First did not seem to be teaching children across the country to read. In 2011, Bush got financially involved—reaping an annual salary of $60,000—with Academic Partnerships, a company whose aim was to “persuade public colleges to attract more students by outsourcing to the firm their master’s-degree programs in fields such as business and education.” MacGillis also traces Bush’s long and stalwart support for the Common Core Standards.
The Foundation for Excellence in Education is known for its lavish summits. Here is MacGillis’s description of the most recent, just last November: “In the corridors, hundreds of state legislators, education commissioners, activists, and Bush aides mingled with education-industry executives and lobbyists. Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, who is now an anti-teachers’-union activist, walked through the hall with a cup of coffee in each hand. Joel Klein was there to pitch Amplify’s latest products, including a tablet app that features the actor Chadwick Boseman reading from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. The ‘donor meetings’ between the state commissioners and company executives were held all afternoon in a conference room. Later, attendees drifted to the hotel bar, where they waited to hear Condoleezza Rice speak at a banquet that evening. Tony Bennett (former Indiana Chief for Change) walked through the lobby. After he lost his bid for reelection in Indiana he briefly served as Florida’s education commissioner, but resigned after the Associated Press reported that he had tweaked the rating of an Indiana charter school founded by a major G.O.P. Donor. (An inspector general later cleared him of any legal violation.) He was consulting for the test-prep company ACT Aspire, which is co-owned by Pearson. ‘In this incredible land of opportunity,’ Bennett said, ‘why shouldn’t someone who served his country get to serve in another way?'”
MacGillis tells the story, rich in detail, of Jeb Bush’s commitment to standards-based accountability, privatization, free markets, competition, de-regulation, and on-line instruction. There is a lot here about making money and promoting business partners—the story of an aggressive business tycoon—but nothing about teachers or children or what education ought to be about or what needed to happen to improve the public schools of Florida. MacGillis’s profile surely will help fix the image of Jeb Bush as the presidential candidate with a long term commitment to free-market ideology and making money through the enterprise of education.