Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 2

After today, this blog will begin a two-week holiday break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.  Good wishes for the holidays!

Here is the second half of a two-part post—yesterday and today—to summarize recent news coverage about Betsy DeVos

You may feel you already know enough about Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. You may be disgusted that a one-cause activist and philanthropist has been appointed for an important federal position that oversees, for example, civil rights protection for children across America’s public schools, especially as her one cause has been the expansion of school vouchers—public dollars children can carry to private and parochial schools. Maybe you’ve already learned enough to be furious that yet another billionaire from the One Percent will be shaping federal policy for the schools that serve the 99 Percent. Maybe you are angry about DeVos’s lack of experience in education—and especially the schools operated by and for the public. Betsy DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School and, as columnist Wendy Lecker has explained: “(S)he is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school.”

But this two-part blog will help fill in any gaps in your understanding.  During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, and later, if she is confirmed and as her policy proposals roll out, you’ll have the facts at your fingertips as contributions to any and every conversation.  News reporting on DeVos this week has been particularly interesting, as newspapers have been assigning reporters to investigate in depth DeVos’s advocacy to reduce regulation of marketplace school choice, the influence of her religious beliefs, her partners and allies in the sphere of school choice advocacy, and the way in which DeVos’s ideologically driven philanthropy fits right in to the work of the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates, although DeVos is far more driven by far-right anti-government, pro-voucher ideology.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the New York University education historian Diane Ravitch coined the term “The Billionaire Boys Club” to describe a new wave of mega-philanthropy—no longer responsive to the ideas of a range of grant seekers but instead driven by the strategies of foundation boards and staffs—and geared not simply to meeting the funding needs of supplicant nonprofits but instead to influencing the direction of policy.  In that book Ravitch warned: “Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Now Ravitch has published an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Blame Big Foundations for Assault on Public Education, to explain how the Billionaire Boys have paved the way for the appointment of another— and this time more radical—philanthropist, Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education. (The article is paywalled in The Chronicle, but Ravitch has provided a copy on her personal blog.)

In her new piece, Ravitch reviews the membership of the original Billionaire Boys Club and demonstrates its influence: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have promoted charter schools and school choice for the past decade. They laid the groundwork for extremist attacks on public schools. They legitimized taxpayer subsidies for privately managed charters and for ‘school choice,’ which paved the way for vouchers. (Indeed, as foundations spawned thousands of charter schools in the past decade, nearly half of the states endorsed voucher programs.) At least a dozen more foundations have joined the Big Three, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.”  While Betsy DeVos’s philanthropic priorities are much farther to the right, Ravitch argues that the more centrist foundations have normalized school choice through their donations and as program officers from the Gates Foundation were brought in as key staff at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.

Ravitch argues that, working in concert, these foundations and their philanthropic gifts have shifted the broader conversation to normalize what has become known as “corporate school reform” and to promote school choice.  They have also created and funded think tanks to justify this work and created  a concerted messaging campaign to favor their agenda; “For years these groups have argued that, one, public schools are ‘failing’; two, we must save poor children from these failing schools; three, they are failing because of bad teachers; four, anyone with a few weeks of training can teach as well, or better.  It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative, and it’s wrong.”

I urge you to read Ravitch’s critique and refutation of the mega-philanthropists’ agenda.  As Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos to move the privatization agenda deeper and farther to the right, Ravitch reminds readers about something that none of today’s mega-foundations seems to be promoting: “(U)niversal public education under democratic control has long been one of the hallmarks of our democracy. No high-performing nation in the world has turned its public schools over to the free market.”

Because, as Ravitch points out, Betsy DeVos’s experience is in far-right philanthropy, it might be expected that she’ll bring staff people with whom she is comfortable to run the U.S. Department of Education.  And this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s most experienced reporter on federal education policy, has explored that very topic: Who Is Part of Ed.Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?  “After all,” begins Klein, “she and Trump have about 150 political appointee gigs to fill at the agency. In filling posts…. DeVos could decide to draw from a deep pool of folks she has worked with in education advocacy and political offices, including at the American Federation for Children, a political and advocacy organization she chaired until recently.  Many of them have ties to her home state of Michigan, including Josh Venable, a one-time aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to be helping with the transition. Like DeVos, they’ve been active in Republican politics, especially, and school choice  Also like DeVos, most haven’t served in state education agencies or school districts, at least not in recent years.” Venable has served as national director of advocacy and legislation for Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Klein suspects that the DeVos-founded American Federation for Children will be sending several staff people to Washington to work in the U.S. Department of Education. What sort of experience would they bring?  “Over the past five years AFC has advanced school choice in a number of states, including Indiana, Nevada and Wisconsin…. The organization writes model legislation to help state lawmakers push vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for school choice.”

Klein speculates that Greg Brock, executive director of AFC might be tapped.  For several years between 2000 and 2010, “Brock ran All Children Matter, a political action committee financed by DeVos and her husband, Richard ‘Dick’ DeVos.  The committee sought to elect lawmakers who were friendly to school choice, and target those who weren’t, including anti-voucher Republicans… Brock was also the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project,” the Michigan organization that has promoted charter schools and blocked state laws to regulate charters.  Other American Federation for Children staff described by Klein are Matt Frendewey, AFC’s communications director, and John Schilling, AFC’s chief operating officer.

Another DeVos insider, Greg MeNeilly, is currently chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, a company owned by the DeVoses.  “McNeilly has a long record both in GOP politics and with the DeVos family. He served as the campaign manager for Dick DeVos’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. And he was an architect of Michigan’s Right to Work law…. On the education front, he was the communications director of ‘Kids First! Yes!’ And from 1998 to 2000 he served as a political director for the Michigan Republican Party. He’s also currently on the board of GLEP (Great Lakes Education Project)…. (H)e’s known as an unofficial gatekeeper to Betsy and Dick DeVos.”

Klein also mentions Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor and driver of a national campaign to eliminate due-process job protection for school teachers and undermine teachers unions. Quite recently Campbell Brown launched what she claims is an objective education news website, The 74. Given Cambell Brown’s well-known biases, it is difficult to take seriously her claim of journalistic objectivity. About Campbell Brown, Alyson Klein notes: “She did however, write a warm blog post in support of DeVos’ nomination.”

Finally, to sum up the basic profile of Betsy DeVos, we can turn to Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker: Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools. “DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools… One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness… Almost two-thirds of the state’s (Michigan’s) charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities… And, despite the rhetoric of ‘choice,’ lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.”

Mead reminds us: “Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment… In one interview… DeVos spoke in favor of ‘charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.’ A preemptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.”

This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts:

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.

Privatizer, Corporate Matchmaker: Jeb Bush’s Impact on Public Schooling

On Monday, Jeb Bush declared himself a candidate for President. It’s a good time to review Jeb’s record on public education, and there is a significant record, as Bush made public school reform a centerpiece of his two terms as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007.  His work on education continued after he completed his second term. In 2008,  he founded and chaired the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has engaged actively to promote particular education policies across the states.

In a column on Monday, the day that Jeb Bush declared himself a candidate for President, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized Jeb’s record: “Words matter, so it’s important to know that Bush doesn’t call public school districts public school districts.  Instead, he says the United States has ‘over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.’  He doesn’t mention that some districts don’t have any unions, that unions can’t win a contract agreement by politicians, that a number of governors have sharply curtailed the power of unions.”  “Bush advocates using public money for students to use to pay for private school tuition.  The focus of his 1998 campaign for Florida governor was the ‘Opportunity Scholarship Program,’ a voucher program that allowed state funds to be used to pay tuition at church-run schools.  It was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2006… Bush did successfully push through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows students to attend private school with the help of publicly funded tax credits.” “Meanwhile, the ‘About Us’ page of his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which he founded after leaving the Florida governorship to take his school reform agenda national, uses the word ‘public’ twice—but never with the word ‘school’ or ‘education’ after it (but rather ‘public awareness’ and ‘public outreach’).”  “Bush has said that ‘we can’t just outsource public education to bureaucracies and public education unions and hope for the best,’ but he likes outsourcing public education to for-profit education companies who open public charter schools but run them like a business.  (Is it a coincidence that Florida has the second-highest number of for-profit charter schools?)”

Late in January, this blog summarized Alec MacGillis’s in-depth profile in the New Yorker magazine of Jeb Bush’s education interests, promoted when he was governor of Florida and later through the Foundation for Excellence in Education. MacGillis is particularly critical of the lack of regulation that accompanied the explosive growth of charter schools in Florida during Bush’s tenure as governor: “(I)n 2002, Bush signed a law allowing charter operators who were denied approval by local school boards to appeal to the state.  In 2003, he signed a law to eliminate the state’s cap on the number of charters, which had been set at twenty-eight in the largest counties.” “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 public 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.”

At the end of 2014, in preparation to run for President, Jeb Bush resigned from the Foundation for Excellence in Education that he founded and chaired. Long-time staff member Patricia Levesque now leads the foundation.  Bush led the Foundation for years, however, and MacGillis explores its impact 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.

MacGillis reminds us about Bush’s business connections to Voyager, a company involved in the ill-fated Reading First—the phonics-based reading curriculum adopted by the U.S. Department of Education under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Reading First was one of the earliest mandates of NCLB 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 another for-profit educational venture, 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 writes extensively about Bush’s interest in 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.

In a second excellent profile published early in January in the Washington Post, Lindsey Layton reported on a number of Bush’s endeavors to promote privatization of public education through the Foundation for Excellence in Education: “The foundation has forged an unusual role of 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…. But the foundation, from which Bush resigned as chairman last week as part of his preparations for a possible White House bid, has been criticized as a backdoor vehicle for major corporations to urge state officials to adopt policies that would enrich the companies.  The foundation has, for instance, pushed states to embrace digital learning in public schools, a costly transition that often requires new software and hardware.  Many of those digital products are made by donors to Bush’s foundation, including Microsoft, Intel, News Corp, Pearson PLC, and K12 Inc..  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.  Patricia Levesque, the Bush foundation’s chief executive, said the group does not endorse donors’ products or get involved in sales, saying that ‘we promote policies’ but are ‘neutral on the providers.'”

Layton adds that while the Foundation for Excellence in Education engages in advocacy, it is a dark-money, supposedly “educational” not-for-profit that, under current election laws, is not required to name its donors: “As a nonprofit, Bush’s foundation is not required to disclose its donors.  It reported $10 million in income in 2012, according to tax documents.  The group’s Web site lists most donors, with their contributions included in ranges.  The site was updated Friday to list every donor that contributed last year.  Among the top donors in 2014, giving $500,000 to $1 million, was News Corp., which owns a company called Amplify that markets tablets, software and data analysis to school districts.  NewsCorp chief executive Rupert Murdoch delivered a keynote speech at the Bush foundation’s annual meeting in 2011, when Amplify rolled out its tablet, saying it was time to ‘tear down an education system designed for the 19th century and replace it with one suited for the 21st.'”  Other 2014 donors listed by Layton include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the Educational Testing Service, and  McGraw-Hill Education. (In April, Bloomberg reported major problems at Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, despite the investment of $1 billion in its tablet division.)

To summarize, here are the components of Jeb Bush’s record in education (according to MacGillis and Layton):

  • Introduced Opportunity Scholarship Program vouchers as centerpiece of campaign for Florida governor in 1998. Program later found unconstitutional under the Florida constitution.
  • Passed Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, as a way to introduce vouchers legally under Florida’s constitution.
  • Actively promoted expansion of charter schools while he was governor and encouraged non-profits that ran charter schools to hire for-profit management companies.
  • In Florida, introduced A-F letter grade ratings for schools and school districts.  Chiefs for Change promoted the adoption of A-F letter grade-rating systems in other states.
  • Launched Third-Grade Reading Guarantee in Florida and, through the Foundation for Excellence in Education, promoted this program nationally.  It denies grade promotion to fourth grade for any third-grader who cannot pass the state’s reading test. The program is controversial because research demonstrates that retention-in-grade at any time in a student’s academic life increases the risk of dropping out when the student becomes an adolescent.
  • In 2008 formed the Foundation for Excellence in Education that established Chiefs for Change, a coalition of far-right state superintendents of education.
  • Foundation for Excellence in Education served as matchmaking service to pair corporations with state officials likely to purchase their service as well as their products, and used members of Chiefs for Change to promote the interests of corporations.
  • With the Foundation for Excellence in Education, actively promoted digital learning and virtual schools.
  • Launched a for-profit chain of after school tutoring programs—Voyager Expanded Learning—which was involved with a phonics-based reading program later adapted and folded into the No Child Left Behind Act as Reading First—the reading curriculum later dropped from the federal law when it was found not to help children read.
  • Actively promoted the development of the Common Core Standards.

I urge you to read Valerie Strauss’s column earlier this week along with MacGillis’s profile of Jeb Bush, and Lindsey Layton’s report on the Foundation for Excellence in Education.  If you have already read these articles, I urge you to re-read them now that Jeb has declared his candidacy for President.

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.

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.'”

Who Are the Philanthropic and Corporate Sponsors of Today’s School Deform?

I believe that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—is essential for ensuring that all children are served, and I believe that a strong system of public education is essential as the foundation of our democracy.  In that context, I think it is important to write more about what I support—strong public schools—than what I oppose—the assault on public education by those who would privatize the education of our children primarily for the purpose of making a profit.

However, I don’t think we ought to be naive.  For this reason I sometimes like to look up the source of the money behind the school privatization movement as a discipline to keep myself informed.  In that spirit, let’s check on some of the foundations and corporations that sponsored Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit last week in Boston.

Foundations

The Grand Rapids, Michigan founders of Amway Products, Dick and Betsy DeVos, through their family foundation and Betsy’s organization, All Children Matter, are among the nation’s most persistent promoters of vouchers.  According to Think Progress, “In 2002, Dick DeVos sketched out a plan to undermine public education before the Heritage Foundation, explaining that education advocates should stop using the term ‘public schools’ and instead call them ‘government schools.'”

The Oberndorf Family Foundation devotes itself to school choice and privatization.  According to Think Progress, the Orerndorfs, whose money was earned through SPO Partners, an investment firm, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past five years in school privatization: “Bill Oberndorf… said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the ‘gold standard’ for what should be done across America.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, has been a strong supporter of charter networks and the corporate school reform movement with grants to the New School Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund, KIPP charter schools,  and Teach for America.  The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund is the philanthropy of the founders of The Gap.  According to the National Education Policy Center: “The Fishers were early supporters of Edison Schools, and have been major supporters of KIPP and Teach for America… the family also supported a young organization, The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee. As noted on the Fisher’s 2011 Form 990, the foundation contributed $250,000 to Rhee’s newest organization, StudentsFirst.”

And there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the longest and most constant funder of school voucher efforts.  Bradley, a Milwaukee-based foundation, underwrote think tanks and astro-turf organizations behind the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee.  The Wisconsin Center for Media and Democracy has closely tracked the far-right giving of the Bradley Foundation, and quotes a local newspaper investigation: “According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ‘from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.’”

Corporations

Here is Amplify, the school tablet and education data management division of Rupert Murdoch’s The News Corp.  Joel Klein, who revolved right out of his job as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools to his position with the News Corp, worked with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to bring mass charterization, disruptive change through ongoing school closures, and school co-locations to New York City.  Microsoft is also a large contributor.  Jeb Bush has worked with many of the technology firms, including Microsoft, to promote “blended” learning that is said to save money for school districts if computers do some of the teaching and thereby permit larger class size.  Edgenuity, another sponsor, promotes blended learning and sells “blended” curricula that incorporate computers. Intel is another enormous ed-tech company.

Here among the sponsors are a number of corporations who supply standardized tests and grade the tests and manage the data around testing: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scantron.  Scholastic is selling educational materials to implement the Common Core Standards.   Renaissance Learning produces curricula aligned with the Common Core Standards.  The Education Testing Service, the manager of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for decades, has also been prominent in the burgeoning K-12 standardized testing market.

Finally there is K12, the nation’s largest, for-profit, on-line charter school with affiliates across the states.  K12 brags about its huge enrollment, but cannot boast about its graduation rates and student achievement. This is the company about which hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson published a scathing critique a couple of weeks ago.