Jeb’s Foundation for Excellence in Education Discloses All Major Donors

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.

This blog has covered the history of Jeb Bush’s involvement with education policy here and here.

Jeb Colludes with Corporations to Destroy “Government-Run, Unionized, Monopoly” Schools

To prepare for positioning himself to run for President, Jeb Bush has resigned from a number of boards including his role as chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization he founded to promote a “Florida Formula” for school reform across the states and to establish ties between state governments and the corporations involved with the school reforms Bush promotes.  In an incisive report for the Washington Post earlier this week, Lindsey Layton outlines the school reforms Bush and his foundation launched in Florida and then exported across the states: “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, and encouraging online learning and virtual charter schools.”

While Bush is often described as the moderate among possible Republican presidential candidates, these policies constitute a radical attack on public education.  Layton reminds us of Bush’s approach to public education: “fighting what he calls ‘government -run, unionized, politicized monopolies’ that ‘trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.'”

Despite that it is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education—like the American Legislative Exchange Council and other politically active, so-called educational organizations—has actively engaged in political activity. “The foundation has helped its corporate donors gain access to state education officials through a committee called Chiefs for Change, composed of as many as 10 officials from mostly Republican-led states who convene at the foundation’s annual meeting.  The meetings include private two-hour gatherings with the officials and company executives.” “In most of the states where the education chiefs have worked closely with the foundation, K12 and Pearson have established virtual charter schools, in which students take their courses online and tax money flows to the companies.”

Layton describes e-mails from 2011 and 2012 showing that Bush’s foundation worked closely with state superintendents of public instruction who were members of Chiefs for Change to help them promote the Foundation’s priorities: “The foundation has forged an unusual role mixing politics and policy—drafting legislation and paying travel expenses for state officials, lobbying lawmakers, and connecting public officials with industry executives seeking government contracts.”  Layton calls Bush’s nonprofit “a backdoor vehicle for major corporations to urge state officials to adopt policies that would enrich the companies.”

Corporate donors to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, according to Layton, include Microsoft, Intel, News Corp (whose Amplify Division “markets tablets, software and data analysis to school districts”), Pearson, K12 Inc., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the Educational Testing Service,  McGraw-Hill Education, and Connections Academy.  Philanthropic donors include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Layton quotes Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest: “If companies want to go and directly lobby officials, they should go do that.  But using a 501(c)3 and Jeb Bush’s cachet in the name of good government and good policy in a move that will expand their market share is not okay.”

This blog most recently covered Jeb Bush’s education policies here.