In a January profile of Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate for President, Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post described Bush—who launched his own Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2008 after he completed two terms as Florida’s governor from 1999-2007—as a promoter of school “reform,” a disruptor, and a privatizer: “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 schools.” Layton quotes Jeb’s goals in his own words: “fighting government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies… that trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.” Jeb resigned from the foundation at the end of 2014 in preparation for his Presidential candidacy.
While the Foundation for Excellence in Education has actively engaged in advocacy, it is a dark-money, not-for-profit, charitable organization that purportedly provides issues education but not lobbying and that, under current election laws, is not required to name its donors. On Wednesday afternoon of this week, the Foundation for Excellence in Education disclosed to the Associated Press the names of all donors who had given more than $5,000 before the end of 2014. The AP reporters, Ronnie Greene and Steve Peoples, who broke the story, describe the disclosure as “part of a larger effort by Bush’s campaign to highlight transparency.” Previously the foundation had revealed names of donors only from 2012-2014.
The AP reporters comment: “Big-time donors to a nonprofit educational group founded by Jeb Bush, disclosed for the first time Wednesday, highlight the intersection between Bush’s roles in the worlds of business, policy and politics years before he began running for president… That donor list shows the circular connections as Bush moved from governor to education advocate to corporate board member. Supporters in each of those stages of his career contributed to his educational foundation—which, in turn, sometimes supported causes benefiting its donors. They include Rupert Murdoch’s media giant News Corp., GOP mega-donor Paul Singer’s foundation, energy companies such as Exxon Mobil, even the Florida Lottery.” Officials at the Florida Lottery explained that, while the Lottery cannot legally make charitable donations, it did underwrite six conferences of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (worth $82,500) “to help raise awareness of the lottery’s contributions to education.”
One of the committees of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Chiefs for Change—a group of conservative state superintendents of public instruction—has actively promoted on-line education and particular products of education publishing and technology companies in the states where these officials were serving as state chiefs. In some instances members of Chiefs for Change have served as endorsers for such products among their colleagues in other states. Ed O’Keefe, a reporter who also picked up this story on Wednesday in the Washington Post, adds that, “The Foundation for Excellence in Education… has mixed politics and policy by drafting education reform legislation, paying travel expenses for state officials, lobbying lawmakers, and connecting public officials with industry executives seeking government contracts.” (Chiefs for Change separated from the Foundation for Excellence in Education earlier this year to become an independent organization.)
According to the AP report, Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor and a leader who has actively promoted such practices as closing so-called failing schools, opening charter schools, and evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, has been a major contributor: “Four companies and nonprofits that appointed Bush to their boards of directors or advisory boards backed the education foundation. One, Bloomberg Philanthropies, was among the most frequent supporters, making seven donations worth between $1.2 milliaon to $2.4 million. Bush served on Bloomberg’s board from 2010-2014.”
The AP reporters explain that the Foundation for Excellence in Education has also made strategic grants that seem to have helped secure contracts for friends of the foundation: “Bush’s education nonprofit provided $1.1 million in public information grants to eight states in 2013…. In recent years, at least nine charter schools and education-related donors to the Foundation for Excellence in Education won contracts in those eight states, revealing the mirrored missions of donors and the foundation.”
The foundation, according to the AP report, received grants from philanthropies and businesses known to be among America’s prominent backers of the privatization of education: the Walton Family Foundation, Wal-Mart Stores, Wal-Mart Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the News Corp., and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
Corporate support for the foundation seems to have been viewed as a marketing strategy. O’Keefe at the Washington Post reports: “A large number of contributions came from for-profit education companies, including Apex Learning; Pearson; Charter Schools USA; VSSCHOOLZ; News Corp.; Microsoft; Intel; and K12, Inc. Of these companies, News Corp.—which has digital education properties—was most generous, giving six-figure sums in at least three years.”
The AP reporters note, perhaps with some humor: “While Hillary Clinton played a leading role in an organization that accepted millions of dollars from foreign entities, Bush’s group accepted money from just one international source: British-based Pearson PLC….” Pearson is well known as one the three biggest education publishers that sell books, tests and technology to school districts across the United States. It is the producer, grader, and data processor of the on-line tests being administered by the Common Core PAARC Consortium. Pearson also competes across the states to provide the standardized tests that states are required to administer annually under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It also markets curricula and textbooks aligned with the tests it produces.