An employee of Jeb Bush’s education foundation was unequivocal when New Mexico’s top schools official needed someone to pay her travel costs to Washington to testify before Congress: The foundation would give her “whatever she needs.”
When Maine’s education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, lamented that he could not persuade the state legislature to expand online learning in schools, a foundation employee assured him that Bush “will probably want to engage Governor [Paul] LePage directly to express our support for efforts to advance a bold agenda.”
The exchanges, revealed in e-mails from 2011 and 2012, illustrate the leading role Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education has played in many states since its creation in 2008, following the Republican’s two terms as governor of Florida.
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.
It also has sustained, and even expanded, Bush’s influence in the years since he left office and would no doubt be a focal point of his likely presidential campaign — one in which he would portray himself as a candidate with intellectual heft and a record of reform on an issue that affects millions of Americans.
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.” She said the foundation raises money from corporate donors like any other nonprofit organization.
“There are businesses who sponsor our event just like they sponsor any other event, whether it’s board gatherings or teachers-union gatherings,” she said. “We have a definite viewpoint on policy, and our sponsors tend to share it.”
The foundation is likely to become a major point of contention in a Republican primary if Bush runs. The former governor will almost certainly single out the organization as evidence of his dedication to improving public schools, particularly those in poor and minority communities, by fighting what he calls “government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies” that “trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”
But many conservatives have become skeptical of national efforts to improve education following the No Child Left Behind Act, championed by then-President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s brother, and the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards. They may consider Bush’s foundation another example of powerful interests taking classroom decisions away from parents.
Jeb Bush is a rare remaining GOP champion of the Common Core, and his foundation has secured $5.2 million since 2010 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the primary funder of the campaign to promote the standards.
Bush did not respond to a request through a spokeswoman for comment about his foundation.
Since its creation, the foundation has been largely devoted to exporting the “Florida formula,” an overhaul of public education Bush oversaw as governor between 1999 and 2007.
That agenda includes ideas typically supported by conservatives and opposed by teachers unions: 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.
The foundation’s close collaboration with state officials has been especially strong in New Mexico, where Education Secretary Hanna Skandera has pushed for the “Florida formula” to be adopted in her state.
Skandera, a Bush protege and co-chairman of Chiefs for Change, drew the ire of Democrats in 2013 for her role in allowing the Pearson company, a foundation donor, to open a virtual charter school. The state’s elected education commission rejected the school, but Skandera overruled the decision and approved it.
Skandera worked in the Florida Department of Education while Bush was governor and later worked at a for-profit online higher-education company that Bush had advised.
In a 2011 e-mail exchange between Skandera and foundation staff member Mary Laura Bragg, also a former education aide under Bush, the two looked forward to reconnecting during an upcoming Chiefs for Change discussion. “I’ll be on tomorrow’s Chiefs’ call — can’t wait to hear your voice!” Bragg wrote.
Four days later, Bragg wrote to Skandera to ask when New Mexico would be rolling out its A-to-F school grading program. Skandera replied that the state would be developing rules and working with districts in the ensuing months, adding, “Any chance I can get you out here sometime this fall to help advise us on our literacy initiative?”
“I’m at your beck and call,” Bragg answered.
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.
Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, wrote in an e-mail that the company, based in Herndon, Va., donates to Bush’s foundation because it shares a goal of “expanding opportunities for children and choices for parents.”
Brandon Pinette, a spokesman for Pearson, declined to answer questions about whether the company has benefited from its relationship with Bush’s foundation. He said the company has a “long, proud history of investing in and across the U.S., and this work includes a sponsorship of a variety of education organizations focused on improving learning.”
Bowen, who resigned as Maine’s education commissioner in 2013, said in an interview that donors to Bush’s foundation did not have “unusual” access to state decision-makers. But he acknowledged that the intertwining of policy and corporate interests is a reality of how education policy is crafted.
“You can’t throw a rock in Washington without hitting some association,” he said. “And they all have financial support and all provide resources and access to folks who they’re there to support.”
Donald Cohen, executive director of the liberal group In the Public Interest, said the arrangement allows companies the opportunity to influence public officials without disclosure.
“If companies want to go and directly lobby officials, they should go do that,” said Cohen, who used public-records requests to obtain thousands of e-mail exchanges between the foundation and top state education officials and posted them online in 2012. “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.”
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. News Corp. 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.”
The donor lists show that the foundation has drawn funding from a wide range of sources, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charity arm of former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), and the Walton Family Foundation, a major backer of charter schools.
The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust gave the foundation $2.3 million in 2013, primarily because of its advocacy for digital education and Common Core, said Rich McKeon, the trust’s education program director.
“When we did work in New York City, we visited low-income schools and found students couldn’t take the AP course they wanted because it wasn’t offered,” he said. “The Foundation for Excellence in Education is doing a lot of work around digital learning, and some of it is really focused on how to make sure students have access to courses online that they may not be able to get in their school.”
Corporate donors also include Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a large testing company, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers advanced-placement and English proficiency tests and has $43 million in contracts to develop tests connected to Common Core. Another donor, McGraw-Hill Education, sells math and reading programs and classroom materials aligned to the Common Core standards, among other products.
Foundation staff members say they have helped mold education policy in 28 states. The foundation lobbied Florida to require that every high school student take an online course before graduating, and similar laws have been passed in Arkansas, Georgia and Virginia.
Levesque said the organization seeks to provide support for state officials, focusing on “everything from the policy development to actually helping to get bills passed to implementation.”
The foundation has showcased Bush education policies that he says promote civil rights. At its 2014 meeting in November, Bush was introduced by Denisha Merriweather, a young African American woman from Jacksonville, Fla., who said Bush “gave me the chance to change my life” by enacting a tax credit scholarship that paid her $5,200 tuition at a private Christian high school. When the former governor took the stage, he presented the foundation’s work as part of a “big political fight.”
“Abundant choices for parents, a 21st-century teaching profession and the full embrace of digital learning will require changes in laws, rules and regulations,” he said, adding later, “Monopolies don’t go quietly into the night.”
The e-mails between the foundation and state officials describe a symbiotic relationship.
In biweekly conference calls and in-person meetings, all funded by the foundation, state officials relied on the technical expertise of the foundation while it parlayed its connections to state leaders into policy victories.
The foundation even paid for Skandera, the New Mexico education secretary, to perform some of her official duties. When a House committee invited her to testify on Capitol Hill in 2011 about the education policy changes she implemented, the foundation paid for her flight, hotel, meals and incidentals.
“Hanna has been asked to testify in front of congress,” Levesque wrote to her staff at the foundation on Sept. 7, 2011. “She needs us c4c [Chiefs for Change] to pick up costs. I told her we would. Can u reach out to her and her Asst to help with whatever she needs. Tnx.”
Through a spokesman, Skandera declined requests for an interview.
In Maine, the foundation drafted a 2012 executive order, signed by Gov. Paul LePage (R), directing the state to develop a plan to expand digital learning. LePage wrote that the policy should adopt the “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” — a creation of Bush’s foundation that called for the elimination of legal and regulatory barriers to online education.
Foundation staff members celebrated the move, telling Bowen in e-mails that Maine was “the first to issue an executive order on the 10 elements, which is spectacular.”
Bowen said that Chiefs for Change was just one organization among many that help states craft education policy. “As a policymaker, you’re always looking for good ideas, some other state that’s tried something, some other governor or legislator or state ed chief that has a good idea,” he said.
The foundation also helped at least one of its chiefs make political connections. Soon after Tony Bennett was elected Indiana superintendent of public instruction in 2009, he joined Chiefs for Change and went about implementing the Bush formula, creating an A-to-F school grading system and a reading requirement for third-graders while instituting vouchers for private schools, expanding charter schools and embracing Common Core.
At the foundation’s national summit in 2011, the chiefs’ schedule included a fundraiser for Bennett at a bar across the street from the host hotel. Bennett was facing reelection in 2012. Several foundation sponsors — including members of the Walton family, Connections Academy, Houghton Mifflin, K12 and McGraw-Hill — contributed to his campaign.
Bennett was defeated by a union-backed former teacher who rode a wave of parent anger over Bennett’s agenda.
Bennett was later hired as Florida’s education commissioner but soon resigned amid reports that in Indiana he had ordered a grade changed from a C to an A for a charter school run by a GOP donor.