Broward News

Is Jeb Bush's Education Group Helping Write Laws That Benefit Its Corporate Funders?

After he left the governor's office in 2008, Jeb Bush set up an education nonprofit group, and last week, The Nation charged that Bush "could be using his education reform crusade for personal gain."

The dust-up began when the union-affiliated research group In the Public Interest (IPI) used the Freedom of Information Act to request emails sent to education officials in Florida and other states. Then the group published copies of emails between leaders of Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and Florida Department of Education staffers, including Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who resigned abruptly last July.  

The implication was that Bush's foundation was helping to write laws that could in turn benefit the companies funding the foundation. 

FEE was set up by Bush when he left office in 2008, and it remains the mainstay of his signature issue, education reform. As Jeb sees it, kids will learn more and better if unions are crushed and schools are run for private profit. FEE relies on funding from private corporate interests to lobby government for public policy measures that... benefit private corporate interests.

Assessing the published emails, the Washington Post pointed out: 

• "FEE staff sought legislation that would count the state test, known as FCAT, as more than 50% of the state's school accountability measure... Pearson, the company that holds the $250 million FCAT contract, sponsors FEE through its foundation." 

• A FEE staffer advised that a legislative bill should give "authority to set a state‐approved list of charter operators or private providers." At least one FEE donor, the for-profit Florida-based Charter Schools USA, could benefit from being placed on such a state-approved list.

• Another FEE staffer stated that a goal was to pass a "parent trigger" law. Such a law  (which failed to pass during Florida's last legislative session) is a mechanism that lets parents override administrators and convert neighborhood schools to charter schools. As the Post noted, Charter Schools USA could also benefit from such a law. 

The most explosive charge to emerge has been that Jeb has a personal investment in one of the companies FEE pushed on state officials. As described by The Nation:

In one e-mail from last year, Bush's top aide at his foundation, Patricia Levesque, communicated with school officials to urge them to use a company called SendHub, a start-up that uses cloud computing and text messages. Bush, according to TechCrunch, has a modest "five-figure" investment in SendHub. Garrett Johnson, the founder of SendHub, previously worked for Bush and still serves on the board of Foundation for Florida's Future, another Bush-run education nonprofit.

In response to a Tampa Bay Times report on the dispute, Jeb's group argued that: 

The majority of Excel in Ed's operational expenses, including salaries, are funded by private foundations, non-profits and philanthropies which do not sell to the K-12 market. We do accept sponsorships from corporations to help fund our annual Excellence in Action National Summit on Education Reform, in the same manner that unions and other organizations accept the same kind of sponsorships from companies.

The notion that Gov. Jeb Bush, who has spent the past 20 years as a passionate advocate for education reform, is profiting from this involvement is beyond ridiculous. He has devoted thousands of hours to this cause without compensation.

USF education prof Sherman Dorn, wrote

If the charter for the foundation is consistent with indirectly advancing the interests of one or more industries, and none of the specific activities violate federal law involving non-profits, then the worst one can say is that the foundation is operating on the marginal side of ethics (and possibly not that, depending on the range of non-profit activities).

Dorn described the affair as "casual back-scratching of people in the same circle." 

Mighty charmed circle, we'd add. Them what has, gets -- and then they take tax exemptions on donations to groups that work to see that they keep on getting.

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