Correspondence between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s K-12 advocacy organization and state education leaders—obtained and publicized by a privatization-watchdog group—has renewed debate over the extent to which the private sector can benefit by gaining access to government officials, and markets, through nonprofit advocacy groups.
The emails between Mr. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and officials in Maine, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and other states show the group discussing model bills with state officials and promoting specific policy initiatives, such as online education and retaining 3rd graders not reading at grade level.
The nonprofit group In the Public Interest, which is based in Washington and published the emails last month, is critical of many privatization initiatives. It says it doesn’t have a problem with businesses seeking new markets, but contends the foundation is being used as cover for companies seeking public money without lobbying in an upfront way.
But foundation officials say that it does nothing unethical or improper, that corporations don’t tell it what to do, and that the watchdog group’s assertions distort and misrepresent the foundation’s work.
In general, concerns about how private companies influence public policy are reasonable to raise, but advocacy groups of all stripes also tend to benefit people in various areas financially, said Frederick M. Hess, the education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank whose purposes include strengthening free enterprise.
“Advocacy can be characterized this way across a range of issues,” said Mr. Hess, who writes an opinion blog for Education Week‘s website.
‘Influence on Steroids’
At the heart of In the Public Interest’s criticisms of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based foundation is its high-profile affiliate known as Chiefs for Change. That group includes state education superintendents or commissioners from Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.
The stated mission of Chiefs for Change is to advance “bold, visionary education reform” by implementing teacher evaluations based primarily on student achievement, barring social promotion for students who can’t demonstrate literacy on a test in 3rd grade, and grading schools on an A-F scale. Its members have drawn the ire of teachers’ unions and others.
In the Public Interest, however, argues that low-profile, but persistent, beneficiaries of the work between the foundation and state officials are companies seeking to do business with schools.
In an email to Chiefs for Change members on Feb. 23 last year, for example, the foundation’s chief executive officer, Patricia Levesque, touted the “beauty” of SendHub, a mobile messaging service that she said would allow teachers to connect more easily with students and parents.
But In the Public Interest says that subsequent reports have revealed that Mr. Bush was an investor in SendHub at some point last year, showing that the email could have directly and improperly benefited Mr. Bush personally. (A spokesman for the foundation, Jaryn Emhof, confirmed that Mr. Bush was an early investor in SendHub.)
In Florida, where Mr. Bush served as governor from 1999 to 2007, In the Public Interest says that the foundation pushed for increased use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, which is administered in the state through a contract with Pearson. The giant publishing and testing company, with U.S. headquarters in New York City, is a donor to the foundation.
(In a statement, Susan Aspey, the vice president for media relations at Pearson, stressed the importance of digital education, since it “creates more personalized and connected learning experiences for teachers and students.”)
In one case, the foundation may have served an indirect role in connecting private industry to a state official. An email dated Oct. 7, 2011, shows Louis Piconi, a senior vice president at Apangea Learning, a distance-learning company now called Think Through Math, inviting Oklahoma state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi to be his guest at an event he was hosting for Mr. Bush and Tony Bennett, Florida’s education commissioner and a member of Chiefs for Change.
Subsequent to Mr. Piconi’s email, the Oklahoma education department announced in an Oct. 15, 2012, newsletter to teachers that Think Through Math had partnered with the department to offer its services to all public schools in the state.
An Oklahoma education department spokeswoman, Sherry Fair, told the Associated Press this month that Think Through Math won its contract through a traditional bidding process.
More broadly, In the Public Interest alleges that Mr. Bush’s group has promoted its private-sector funders at the group’s conferences. Funders of the group’s 2012 National Summit on Education Reform included Pearson, as well as such supporters as Charter Schools USA, Microsoft, McGraw-Hill Education, and K12 Inc.
“The chiefs [in Chiefs for Change] are public officials that are an affiliate of a private group that is funded in part by private corporations that stand to benefit if those decisionmakers make certain decisions,” said Donald Cohen, In the Public Interest’s chairman. “I don’t think it’s an illegal conflict of interest. I’m not an attorney, ... but this is influence on steroids.”
In the Public Interest receives funding from the Ford, Open Society, In the Public Welfare, and Surdna foundations. It is a project of the Washington-based Partnership for Working Families, which is critical of corporate influence of public policy.
The accusations from In the Public Interest distort or factually misrepresent the work of Mr. Bush and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said Ms. Levesque, its chief executive officer. In some instances, she said, the foundation has pushed for policies that its donors don’t like.
In Florida, Ms. Levesque said, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, another K-12 policy group led by Mr. Bush and Ms. Levesque, pushed in 2010 to reduce the weight given to scores from Pearson-provided FCAT tests on high schools’ A-F grades—a stance that she said undercuts Mr. Cohen’s argument that the advocacy by Mr. Bush and his groups benefited Pearson.
The Foundation for Florida’s Future has also advocated for digital-learning expansion in Florida that traditional for-profit textbook publishers find unhelpful, Ms. Levesque said. (Many traditional publishers are expanding their digital operations.)
At the national summits, Ms. Levesque said, companies can set up exhibits, but the Foundation for Excellence in Education doesn’t officially endorse them or direct state schools chiefs to them at official events."We don’t let corporations shape what our policy positions are, or what gets highlighted,” Ms. Levesque said.
Regarding SendHub, Ms. Levesque said she never knowingly promoted the company on Mr. Bush’s behalf in his position as an investor. At the same time, Ms. Levesque said she recognized that specifically promoting SendHub created a bad impression.
“I will not do that again. ... If anyone should be chastised for that, it should be me personally,” she said.
As for the foundation’s model bills, they are merely a starting point for legislators and officials who want to customize them to fit their own legal or political situations, not an underhanded means of force-feeding one policy to several states, the foundation says.
Ms. Levesque also said Mr. Cohen’s background working for organized labor, along with union backing for In the Public Interest, “tainted” the watchdog group’s report. (She did not name any specific unions.)
Mr. Cohen did not categorically deny that his group received any support from unions.
Ultimately, finger-pointing over financial backers may score political points, but it threatens to obscure more important arguments, Mr. Hess of the AEI said: “The actual kind of substantive merits of debates almost become the undercard,” not the main event.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as Jeb Bush-Linked Group Gnawed On by Watchdog