School & District Management

Spotlight on Jeb Bush’s K-12 Group as New Chief Takes Over

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 03, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is now chairwoman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
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Corrected: The article originally misspelled the last name of the new president of 50CAN. Her name is Vallay Varro.

Jeb Bush’s decision to turn over leadership of the prominent K-12 organization he founded to Condoleezza Rice as he mulls a White House bid could signal a new phase for the Foundation for Excellence in Education—and for a broader network of advocacy groups seeking to challenge what they view as the status quo in education.

Observers say that although Mr. Bush and other like-minded advocates in the K-12 arena enjoy national stature, Ms. Rice, as a former U.S. secretary of state, adds international standing to the world of education policy and politics.

Her new role recalls that of Colin L. Powell, her predecessor at the State Department, who served as the chairman of America’s Promise Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group for such priorities as higher rates of high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.

“It used to be all educator-oriented, or practitioner-oriented. They were proven leaders in K-12, and therefore they were moving into the advocacy arena,” Kenneth Wong, an education policy professor at Brown University, said of more traditional champions of school causes. “Now, we are seeing a broader pool of advocacy leaders.”

Ms. Rice’s ascension to the top spot as the chairwoman of the Tallahassee-based foundation that Mr. Bush, the former Florida governor, started in 2008 is one of several recent transitions at K-12 advocacy groups that share priorities:

• Former Walton Family Foundation adviser James Blew took over in October as the president of StudentsFirst, the Sacramento-based organization founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Jim Blew, the new president of StudentsFirst, is another example of recent turnover at the top of education-advocacy groups.

• Marc Porter Magee, the founder and former president of the Washington-based 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, known as 50CAN, shifted day-to-day control of the organization to its new president, Vallay Varro, late last year, while staying on as chief executive officer. (Combined, StudentsFirst and 50CAN work in 15 states.)

• Ben Austin, the founder of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based group that supports “parent trigger” measures for initiating school overhauls, left that group in December to take over policy development and advocacy at Students Matter. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based group is supporting the plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California lawsuit over teacher-tenure laws.

Although Mr. Bush’s foundation, StudentsFirst, and 50CAN deal with a broader suite of issues than Students Matter, all have pushed for changes to tenure laws and hiring and firing practices regarding teachers in several states.

National Advocacy

Ms. Rice’s new role at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, announced last month, adds intrigue, meanwhile, to how the foundation—and education policy advocates in general—will factor into any presidential run by Mr. Bush. He carved out education as a signature issue during his Sunshine State gubernatorial tenure, from 1999 to 2007.

Ms. Rice, a former provost of Stanford University, will continue to work as a professor of politics and a senior fellow at Stanford, while the foundation’s current executive director, Patricia Levesque, oversees the group’s daily operations. Ms. Rice, who had been serving on the foundation’s board of directors, was not available for an interview. Foundation officials were also not available.

The foundation is a national advocate for several policies from the “A+ Plan” agenda that Mr. Bush championed and helped implement during his two terms as governor.

Among the better-known policies the foundation supports that have been adopted by several states are A-F grades for public schools; a requirement that 3rd graders demonstrate reading proficiency to be promoted; the Common Core State Standards; and various school choice mechanisms, including education savings accounts, charter schools, and vouchers for special education and low-income students.

Through its Chiefs for Change affiliate, the foundation has also built up a group of state superintendents to back its policy preferences.

Perhaps Ms. Rice’s most prominent contribution to K-12 policy debates in the years since her service as secretary of state was a Council on Foreign Relations task force she led along with former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein about connections between national security and public schools.

The task force, which decried low proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exams and relatively low graduation rates for minority students, argued in a 2012 report that the common core increased school choice, and that a “national-security readiness audit” would foster increased economic competitiveness and global awareness among U.S. citizens.

Last year, Ms. Rice also spoke at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual “national summit” in Washington. On a panel discussing the Brown v. Board of Education case, Ms. Rice noted that at one point she attended segregated schools.

While she praised public schools as a cornerstone of democracy, she also criticized what she called the “opt out” system of education that allows only parents of means consistent access to good schools.

“The problem today is that we have a public school system that is, in its very essence, unequal,” she said.

In a letter to the foundation staff written by Mr. Bush, he stressed Ms. Rice’s “vast intellect and bold vision.”

In the same letter, Mr. Bush announced that F. Philip Handy would take over as the foundation’s president. Mr. Handy has served on Mr. Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns in Florida and led the national education policy committee of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

A Bigger Pond

When Jeanne Allen, the founder and longtime leader of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which supports school choice, heard the news of Ms. Rice’s new position, she thought it was a “brilliant move.” But Ms. Allen warned against seeing any connection between Ms. Rice’s post and Jeb Bush’s possible presidential ambitions.

On the contrary, she argued, Ms. Rice’s high profile will ensure that the foundation isn’t simply subsumed by any presidential campaign by Mr. Bush.

“She actually has a reputation as an independent, highly intellectual nonpartisan,” Ms. Allen said. She also said Ms. Rice’s new role at the foundation is also a sign that staff members, as opposed to board members, are the ones increasingly representing the organization with officials and pursuing the group’s goals. In this way, she said, the group is raising its profile while also showing its maturity in affecting state policy.

Mr. Blew, the new president of StudentsFirst, said that with the Council on Foreign Relations task force, Ms. Rice leveraged her experience as a former secretary of state to stress the connection between public schools and the global economy.

But Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said Ms. Rice’s leadership role actually reflects “no maturation at all” for the Foundation for Excellence in Education or for the brand of education reform it represents.

Mr. Schneider, who also writes an opinion blog, K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric, for the Education Week website, compared Ms. Rice’s appointment to decisions by the Los Angeles Unified and Wake County, N.C., districts in the past decade to hire retired high-ranking military officers (both of whom have since left). He argued that Mr. Bush and his allies don’t care about debating policy ideas, only about supposedly bold and more effective leadership.

“She focuses on matters of state,” said Mr. Schneider, referring to Ms. Rice’s background in diplomacy. “What’s her background in K-12 schooling, other than that she went to school herself?”

Citing her experience with policymaking at the federal level, Mr. Blew dismissed the idea that Ms. Rice’s lack of direct experience working in public schools or with K-12 policy would be a hindrance, or that her new role signaled that groups like the foundation, StudentsFirst, and others were moving closer to becoming “establishment” organizations.

“Most of the work is really done at the state level. And we need more of it,” he said.

Expanding Work?

It’s not clear that Ms. Rice will see any great need or opportunities to change the foundation’s direction.

In a statement, Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said the organization “under [Ms. Rice’s] leadership will continue to advocate for every student in America and work with state leaders, educators, and parents to transform education.”

While the foundation operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and is limited to educational activities, a less prominent but affiliated organization—Excellence in Education National—was founded by Mr. Bush in 2013 as a 501(c)4 nonprofit. The latter group can be involved in lobbying and partisan political activity. Mr. Handy as well as Betsy DeVos, the chairwoman of the Windquest Group, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based investment firm.

For example, the affiliated group has lobbied the Mississippi legislature this year in support of a bill that would give special education students access to voucher-style education scholarship accounts that could be used at private schools.

Mr. Wong, of Brown University, suggested that given her university background, Ms. Rice also could provide the foundation additional perspective on higher education issues, or even lead it to begin staking out positions on postsecondary policy.

But as philosophically similar policy and advocacy groups multiply and grow in stature, they could face increasing pressure from funders to demonstrate their effectiveness in affecting schools, districts, and states.

“They are also operating in a fairly competitive marketplace,” Mr. Wong said of such organizations. “The funders can choose to give money to organization A, as opposed to B. And so they have to jockey for position.”

Separately, Mr. Blew downplayed the idea that former Cabinet secretaries and others with a global profile will increasingly flock to K-12 policy organizations in the coming years.

“There aren’t 20 people at Condoleezza Rice’s level,” Mr. Blew said. He added that “if all of them were to say that ‘K-12 policy is an issue I’m going to be spending my time and talents on,’ I’d be thrilled. But I wouldn’t predict it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Captain Aboard at Jeb Bush’s Ed. Group

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