Jeb Bush Finally Gets His Pet Voucher Program Passed (Again) in Florida

Jeb Bush has fallen out of the national headlines, but Florida continues to be dominated by his policies and those of the advocacy organization and so-called think tank he founded, ExcelinEd, formerly known as the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

On Tuesday, Florida’s House passed a new school voucher bill, the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which had already passed the Senate. Florida’s newly elected Governor Ron DeSantis, a strong advocate for privatization of public education, is expected to sign the bill.

Bush’s fingerprints are all over this bill which expands Florida’s vouchers. The Miami Herald‘s Emily Mahoney reports: “Bush, 66, was on the floor of the House when the bill came to a final vote, along with commissioner of education and former House Speaker Richard Corcoran, plus Senate leaders, all of whom stood up and applauded when the bill passed 76-39… Bush posted a photo to Twitter that showed him with the Legislature’s leadership as well as the sponsors of the bill in the House and Senate. ‘Incredible day in Tallahassee to witness the passage of historic legislation that will usher in greater educational freedom for Florida families,’ he wrote.”

Maybe you were thinking that Florida already had a voucher program, and you’d be correct. When he was Florida’s governor, Bush pushed through another school voucher program, but, in the 2006 decision in Bush V. Holmes, the Florida Supreme Court found the vouchers unconstitutional under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which bans the expenditure of public dollars for religious schools.

This year, however, the members of Florida’s Republican legislative majority believe things may be different, because Florida’s new Governor Ron DeSantis has just appointed three new justices to the state’s supreme court.

Mahoney explores the constitutional issues: “When Bush helped pass a similar program during his tenure from 1999-2007, it was ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court—raising serious questions about how this proposal will fare in the judicial branch. In January, DeSantis appointed three new conservative justices who may rule differently on the bill.”

Florida also operates another kind of school voucher program—a tuition tax credit program that has not been questioned under Florida’s constitution because the dollars diverted to private school tuition scholarships do not come directly out of state coffers. The News Service of Florida‘s Jim Saunders explains: “Vouchers have long been one of the most controversial issues in Florida’s education system—a controversy that accelerated after Bush was elected in 1998 with a platform that focused heavily on revamping the system.  Since that time, tens of thousands of students have used voucher-type programs to attend private schools. As an example, 108,098 students received what are known as tax-credit scholarships during the 2017-2018 school year… In that program, businesses receive tax credits for contributions they make to non-profit organizations. The organizations then use the contributions to provide voucher-like scholarships for largely low-income students to go to private schools.”

But, explains Saunders, “The new Family Empowerment Scholarship Program… has crucial differences that have drawn heavy debate.  In part, it would be funded directly by the state rather than through the more-indirect route of tax credits. Also, the new voucher would be available to families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level—which equates to $77,250 for a family of four.”

In a scathing editorial castigating the new voucher bill, the Tampa Bay Times describes the impact of DeSantis’s election last fall on the state’s public school policy: “The outcome of this year’s voucher debate in the decades-long dismantlement of traditional public schools was never in doubt. It was sealed when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis was narrowly elected governor in November and quickly appointed three conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court. The overhaul of the court emboldened the Republican-led Legislature to approve the creation of vouchers that are clearly unconstitutional, confident that an expected legal challenge will be rejected. Elections have consequences, and this is a devastating one.”

The Tampa Bay Times editorial board continues, explaining the fiscal implications of the diversion of state dollars out of Florida’s public school budget: “Don’t be fooled  This legislation… does more than take care of 13,000 kids who are on a waiting list for the existing voucher program that is paid for with tax credits. It raises the annual income limit for eligibility from $66,950 for a family of four for the current voucher program to $77,250 for the (new) ‘Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.’ That income limit will rise in future years, and so will the state’s investment in vouchers. Welcome to a new middle class entitlement. Florida cannot afford this free market fantasy. The state ranks near the bottom in spending per student and average pay for teachers. Hillsborough County has hundreds of teacher vacancies, broken air conditioning systems in dozens of schools will take years to repair, and voters just approved a half-cent sales tax to help make ends meet.  Pinellas County would need $1,200 more per student in state funding just to cover inflation over the last decade. Yet Florida will send $130 million to private schools next year for tuition for 18,000 students… Private schools aren’t bound by the same accountability standards and countless other requirements that public schools must meet. Private schools aren’t assigned letter grades by the state. Private schools aren’t required to accept every student who comes in the door, and they can much more easily move out kids who are low performers or disruptive in the classroom.”

Jeb Bush and Patricia Levesque, his long partner in promoting the privatization of public education in Florida, together lead two organizations which have promoted this bill. Patricia Levesque is the Executive Director of Jeb Bush’s national organization ExcelinEd, formerly the Foundation for Excellence in Education; she is also the Executive Director of a Florida organization that promotes school-privatization—the Foundation for Florida’s Future.  Lavesque released the following statement this week after Florida’s legislature sent the new Family Empowerment Scholarship school voucher program to Governor DeSantis for his signature: “The Family Empowerment Scholarship program builds upon two decades of nationally recognized progress in expanding quality educational options for Florida students.  We commend… the many lawmakers who championed this important program…. Their leadership, commitment and courage in continuing Florida’s strong tradition of educational choice will help thousands of families find the best educational fit for their children.”

Jeb Bush serves on the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for Florida’s Future.  Bush is also President and Chairman of the Board of ExcelinEd. Bush also remains significant nationally as a long friend and ally of Betsy DeVos, our current U.S. Secretary of Education.

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.