Jeb Bush Candidacy Will Promote Corporate Agenda for Education

Jeb Bush is exploring a Presidential campaign.  There has been lots of speculation in the past couple of days about what that will mean for policy in public education.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s reporter on federal public education policy, writes, “Whether you agree with Bush’s positions on things like school choice and the Common Core State Standards or not, his entrance into the race would exponentially raise the profile of K-12 education, which is often an afterthought in national campaigns.”

Libby Nelson, for VOX, explains, “Education is a second-tier issue at the federal level. This one really is a liability for Bush but not because he supports Common Core.  It’s because his national leadership on education issues as a whole might not be all that important… When the Pew Research Center asked voters about the most important issues in the 2014 election, education didn’t even show up on the list.  And the back-burner nature of education issues is particularly true for Republican voters.”

For Politico Pro, Stephanie Simon interviews Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute about Jeb Bush: “For years, he’s been advising governors to adopt his education reform agenda… but that’s really a governor’s vision.  Part of what cost his brother over time with conservatives was that he failed to distinguish between what might be a good idea in a state or local context and what might be appropriate for Washington to pursue as federal policy.”  Simon continues, “In other words, at a time when Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures are loudly decrying federal overreach on education an ex-governor who made his reputation as an education activist might not be an ideal candidate.”

Education policy was at the center of his record as Florida’s governor and has continued as a primary focus of his work.  Assuming these education writers are correct that a Jeb Bush candidacy will bring attention to education, one must consider exactly what kind of education policy Jeb Bush will bring attention to.

As governor of Florida from 1999 until 2007, Jeb Bush championed marketplace school choice including vouchers and charters. He awarded public schools A-F grades based on their standardized test scores. He instituted the Third Grade Guarantee, a plan by which any eight-year-old not reading at grade level as measured by a standardized test was not promoted to fourth grade. How did all this actually work out?   In a 2012 report for Reuters,  Stephanie Simon describes serious reservations about these programs: “But a close examination raises questions about the depth and durability of the gains in Florida.  After the dramatic jump of the Bush years, Florida test scores edged up in 2009 and then dropped, with low income students falling further behind.  State data shows huge numbers of high school graduates still needing remedial help in math and reading… High school graduation rates rose during Bush’s tenure but remain substantially lower than in other large and diverse states, including California, New York, and Ohio…. Florida’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widely considered the most reliable metric, dropped on all four key tests last year….  On all four tests, low-income students fell further behind their wealthier peers…  As for Florida’s charter schools, a recent report found their students consistently outscore kids in traditional schools on state tests.  The charters, however serve fewer poor and special-needs students and fewer students still learning English.”

Jeb Bush founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) which promotes test-and-punish school accountability and market choice in education.  Lisa Graves, writing for PR Watch, traces a number of connections between the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the national organization that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators who are ALEC members to draft model laws that can be introduced in any state legislature and that, in the area of education, promote market competition and choice.  Graves explains: “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 also have had some of the same ‘experts’ as members or staff, part of the revolving door between right-wing groups.”  Corporations that Graves describes as supporters of both ALEC and FEE include K12, Inc., Pearson Connections Academy, Charter Schools USA, and Apex Learning.  Foundations funding both organizations include The Walton Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation.  With the kind of corporate funding Graves describes for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, it should not be surprising that Jeb Bush has been a strong supporter of the use of technology in education and of blended learning, which replaces teachers for part of the day with computers.

Jeb Bush is also responsible for Chiefs for Change, a network of far-right state commissioners of education that has promoted the Third Grade Guarantee and A-F grades for schools and school districts.  Chiefs for Change, designed to create a consistent movement across the states for the priorities of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has included state education superintendents in Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.  As many of the original members have left or been pushed out of their statewide positions, Chiefs for Change has recently lost some of its luster.

One thing that Jeb Bush has never endorsed is stronger support for public schools. In a keynote last month at the national summit of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, he was described by Caitlin Emma for Politico, “encouraging the crowd to keep fighting the ‘government-run, unionized and politicized monopolies who trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system nobody can escape.'”