Bush’s Education Foundation and Influence Peddling: Any Truth to It?

The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) is an organization founded in 2008 by Jeb Bush.  After reading about Bush’s claims that American teens were falling behind in math and science, and listening to his most recent speech at the Heritage Institute, I decided to investigate ExcelinEd, to find out what it is up to, and the extent of its intrusion into the various state’s education policies.  I also wanted to find out to what extent there is influence peddling going on, and any reports on the Foundation’s connections with private companies that sell products and services to public school systems.

According to the ExcelinEd website, the Foundation started out as a conservative group that now is bi-partisan and national in scope (according to them).  The Foundation works with state and local governments and legislative bodies to provide model legislation, rule-making expertise, and implementation strategies related to its reform agenda.  Does this remind you of the American Legislative Exchange Council?  According to the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC is uses corporate money to influence state politicians by not only writing “model” bills, but by providing expertise, and convening conferences for state legislators to learn the ropes of the legislation that they will propose in their states.

The Bush Foundation for Excellence in Education does the same.

The Bush foundation agenda has seven priorities, and its work centers on influencing state governments to pass laws that are directly related to these reform priorities.  The seven reform categories (shown in Box 1) are elements of the corporate and foundation led privatization of public schools, as well as the accountability system based on Common Core Standards and High-Stakes testing.  The reforms shown here are embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Race to the Top.  I’ve studied Georgia’s Race to the Top $400 million proposal and work plan; the state of Georgia’s education system is held in check by these categories of “reform.”

Box 1. Bush Reform Categories

  • Ccr: College and Career Readiness
  • Dl: Digital Learning
  • Etl: Effective Teachers and Leaders
  • K3r: K-3 Reading
  • Obf: Outcome-Based Funding
  • Sc: School Choice
  • Sa: Standards and Accountability

Influence Peddling?

One of my first projects was to find out how much influence the Bush foundation has exerted on legislative efforts in each of the states and the District of Columbia.  The Foundation website has a link to its State of Reform which takes you to an interactive map of the U.S.  Clicking on  any state map will take you to a page that will reveal which of the “reform categories” the Foundation has “had the opportunity to partner with reformers (in that state) to support development, adoption, and implementation of as many of the Bush reforms as possible.

So, the Foundation website provides evidence of its influence on legislation in each state.

To make sense of this data, I created an Excel chart that included the number of laws per reform category that the Foundation had a direct connection with lawmakers in each state.  Counts of the number of laws per state by reform category were recorded.  I interpreted the number of laws reported as an indicator of the degree of influence that the Bush foundation exerts on each of the states.  In some states (including Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New York), there appeared to be no activity.  But there were many states where the Foundation has made inroads by either providing model education reform bills for legislators to use and propose, or by providing consulting services to encourage the passage of bills that are congruent with the goals of the Foundation.

The degree of influence ranged from zero (0) to ninety-five (95).  There are 18 states in which no education laws were passed based on any influence from the Bush foundation, while there were 16 states with some influence.  The Foundation for Excellence in Education is moderately to extremely active in the remaining 18 states.  It is clear from their own website that they are influencing legislation in these states that supports their intensions.

Figure 2. Influence of the Foundation for Excellence in Education from No Influence to Extremely Influential
Figure 1. Influence of the Foundation for Excellence in Education on U.S. States and the District of Columbia Ranging from No Influence to Extremely Influential

There is one state that stands out, and that of course is Florida.  Florida, which is home to the Foundation, had an index influence score of 95.  The Foundation influenced everyone of the reform categories in Florida as seen in Box 2.  In fact, there was more influence peddling in Florida than in most of the remaining states combined.

Box 2: Bush’s Florida Influence: Number of Laws per Reform Category 

  • Ccr: College and Career Readiness—21
  • Dl: Digital Learning—10
  • Etl: Effective Teachers and Leaders—9
  • K3r: K-3 Reading—16
  • Obf: Outcome-Based Funding—12
  • Sc: School Choice—20
  • Sa: Standards and Accountability—7

The influence of the Bush foundation in the states is shown in Figure 3.  For most states, the influence exerted by the foundation falls within expected limits, but Florida is the exception, and is several standard deviations above the other states.

Figure 1. Flow Chart Analysis of the Foundation for Excellence in Education's Influence on State Legislation
Figure 2. Flow Chart Analysis of the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Influence on State Legislation.  *Index Influence Score is equal to the number of reforms directly linked to the influence from the Foundation.

Although the graph paints a picture of evenness of influence throughout the country, don’t be fooled by these numbers.

All it takes is one case of influence peddling to call the organization out, and to expose them for what they are really trying to do.  Digital learning and virtual schools is one of the areas that the Foundation of Excellence is eager to support and influence, because of the lucrative profits that will be realized if states pass laws that require students to take at least one online course to graduate, or offer the possibility of students opting for online courses rather than brick and mortar classes.

Virtual Schools in Maine–Poster Child for Influence Peddling?

In an investigative report, Colin Woodard published the story The Profit Motive Behind Virtual Schools in Maine.  The Foundation for Excellence sponsors conferences for state officials in which presentations are made about the merits of the various reform efforts of the Foundation, especially virtual schools.

In 2012, according to the Woodard report, Maine’s education commissioner was paid to attend a three-day Foundation in Excellence conference in San Francisco.  At that conference, Stephen Bowen, was introduced to two things that excited him:

  1. Everything an educator needed to know about the merits of full-time virtual schools
  2. The Foundation for Excellence in Education Digital Learning Now report card, grading each state on its efforts in digital learning (Graded from A – F)

Mr. Bowen, when shown the Digital Learning Now, 2012 report card, soon discovered that the state of Maine received an overall score of D+.  Bowen’s goal was to improve digital access in Maine by deregulating online learning.  According to Woodard’s article, Bowen was overwhelmed and didn’t have a staff to carry this out.

Not to worry.

He met Patricia Levesque, head of the foundation, although she is paid through her private foundation.  It turns out she is paid as a lobbyist on behalf of online education companies.  Woodard writes about how their meeting in San Francisco led to a partnership (a favorite word of the foundation).  She writes:

Bowen was preparing an aggressive reform drive on initiatives intended to dramatically expand and deregulate online education in Maine, but he felt overwhelmed.

I have no ‘political’ staff who I can work with to move this stuff through the process,” he emailed her from his office.

Levesque replied not to worry; her staff in Florida would be happy to suggest policies, write laws and gubernatorial decrees, and develop strategies to ensure they were implemented.

“When you suggested there might be a way for us to get some policy help, it was all I could do not to jump for joy,” Bowen wrote Levesque from his office.

“Let us help,” she responded.

So was a partnership formed between Maine’s top education official and a foundation entangled with the very companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the policies it advocates.

The Woodard investigation revealed much of Maine’s digital education agenda was being guided (and written) in secret by companies that stood to gain from any actions that Maine took with regard to digital education.  Here was a poster child for influence peddling.  K12 Inc. (an online company), and Connections Education (a subsidiary of Pearson) were involved, and there was evidence that thousands of dollars were spent to create “independent” boards who would run the digital and virtual programs in Maine.  Each of these companies not only influenced state legislators in Maine, they also contributed financial aid to the Foundation for Excellence and the American Legislative Exchange Council!

The actions in Maine by the Foundation for Excellence in Education overlapped with the action of ALEC.  But here is how influence peddling works, as revealed by Woodard’s investigation.  She says in her article:

The corporate chair of ALEC’s education committee was revealed to be Mickey Revenaugh, Connections Education’s senior vice president of state relations, and members included K12, the International Association for K12 Online Learning, and Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Connections Education withdrew its membership in May.)

Bowen was also an ALEC member in March 2011, the month he was confirmed as commissioner, according to a second set of ALEC documents leaked to Common Cause and posted on their website earlier this summer. Bowen – then a senior adviser to LePage and the head of education initiatives for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center – served as a private sector member of ALEC’s education committee, where he worked alongside officials from K12, Connections and other interested companies evaluating and approving model bills – including one creating centralized state clearinghouses for the sale of online courses.

The leaked documents also showed that ALEC-sponsored digital education bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in recent years.

Foundations, such as the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the American Legislative Exchange Council have hidden agenda’s.  They use language, that as Gene Glass says (quoted in the Woodard article) is “the ideal form of crony capitalism.”

The connections between Bush’s Foundation, private companies, and state officials has set up the perfect storm for not just a privatization of schooling, but the expansion of a corrupt and secret, behind closed doors operation that changes laws to line the pockets of corporate officials.  Is the Bush foundation nothing more than an arm or a subdivision of ALEC.  Probably not.  But it certainly behaves as if it received its training and marching orders from them.

What do you think?  Is there any influence peddling of this sort going on in your neck of the woods?  Please tell us about it.

 

Why Don’t Our Elected Representatives Write Their Own Legislation?

Update 3.22.2013: EmpowerEd Georgia reported that the Parent Trigger legislation in Georgia was tabled for this legislative session. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution story, the bill was pulled because it didn’t have the votes needed in the senate for passage.

Today, a committee in Georgia Senate will discuss the Parent Trigger Bill which has already passed the House. The bill will enable disgruntled parents of low performing school to fire the teaching and administrative staff and turn the school over to a for-profit charter management company paid with school district money.

House Bill 123 bill did not originate in Georgia. A similar parent trigger bill is before the Florida legislature. And you guessed it, the Florida bill did not originate in Florida. The same can said of the parent trigger bill in Oklahoma.  If you wonder just what the parent trigger bill really is, follow this link to Fund Education Now, an amazing website created by three parents and education advocates whose understanding of school reform research is far beyond what our legislators use to improve education.

As these Florida education advocates say, “something is being done to public education” and its important that politicians who are making it possible for public funds for education to move to the corporate sector realize that they are going to be challenged.

The bills were written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  The parent trigger bills moving in and out of the legislatures in Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma were written by ALEC. The legislators in these states only had to fill in the dates, the name of their states, and sign the legislation as if it were their own.  ALEC is a corporate-funded organization that works behind closed doors to create model bills that in the end favor corporate interests over the interests of the public sphere.   It’s goal is to promote the privatization of government services and that includes the public schools.

Schools and universities would call this plagiarism. Maybe it’s simply copying with permission. In either case is shows complete disregard for the citizens they represent. To some extent, the legislators are being dishonest, especially when they try to rationalize or explain the reason for the bill. They tell us that they are on the side of parents and their children, when in fact they are using children for the financial gain of private charter firms.

These elected legislators have no integrity in the way they are performing their responsibilities. In this case, the law they are trying to pass is not based a real or perceived need at the local school level. If it was, we would have data on the number of disgruntled parents who are marching and rallying to fire the staff and hire a charter management company.  It’s simply not happening.

Why don’t they write their own legislation? Groups, such as ALEC,  do all the work. The thinking of these legislators is shallow.  All they have to be able to do is read from a menu of model bills on the ALEC website, select a bill that they like, meet with national organization representatives and their lobbyists, and then send the bill to a house and senate committee in their own state.

In the case of the Parent Trigger act, Parent Revolution and ALEC have parent trigger model legislation on their websites.  You can read the Parent Revolution bill here, and the ALEC bill here.

Model Bill Menu–A One Stop Service Station for State Legislators

The American Legislative Exchange Council says it provides a “unique opportunity for legislators, business leaders and citizen organizations” to develop model policies based on academic research, existing state policy and proven business practices (American Legislative Exchange Council 2013).  It’s a goldmine for legislators who take the side of corporate interests over the citizens they represent.  If a legislator is a member of ALEC (there are about 2,000 state representatives on the roll), then you must realize that only 2% of the budget of ALEC comes from these legislators dues, and the rest comes from corporate sponsors.  There are too many corporate sponsors to list on this page.  However, here is a link to a page where you can scroll through the hundreds of corporate sponsors.

On this page, you can get access to brief descriptions of model bills, acts and amendments.  There are about 600 model bills on this page!  I decided to scroll through the hundreds of bills, and select some that relate to education.  I’ve also included several model bills that impinge of science and environmental education.

As you read through the bills that I’ve selected, it is clear that ALEC is in the business privatizing schools, and undermining teachers.  As I wrote in an earlier post, there is a clear attempt to commercialize education and exploit children and schooling further undoing the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy.

Over on the Center for Media and Democracy, you will find an exposé outlining the way ALEC is undermining education in a democratic society.  Following are some ways that ALEC is working to undermine public education.

Look for these in the bills that follow:

    • Offering vouchers with universal eligibility
    • Tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools
    • Preying on parents with children with special needs by using federal funds to subsidize untested for-profit schools
    • Segregating children on the basis on disabilities, race, and parental income.
    • Removing charter school authorization from local school districts and giving it to a state appointed commission
    • Staffing schools with uncertified teachers with little experience
    • Making it almost impossible for teachers to get tenure by basing it on student test score improvement
    • Supporting right-wing ideology by requiring courses that are propaganda forums
    • Promoting climate change denial
  1. Charter School Growth with Quality Act–set up a state charter school commission to serve as charter authorizer.  This act became law in Georgia last year with the help of outside billionaires sending money to the pro-bill organization headed by the legislator who pushed the bill through the Georgia legislature. The bill reinstated a commission that the Georgia Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. It was a get back by the republicans who had their feelings hurt. The bill was opposed by John Barge, the republican Superintendent of Education. Barge was called a turncoat and liar by members of his own party. He’s to be admired.
  2. Civil Rights Act–affirmative action programs would be void.
  3. Education Savings Account Act–enables public funds from the school district to be used to in any program chosen by parents for their children
  4. Endangered Species Resolution–urges Congress to amend the Endangered Species Act to require a stronger role for the states and stronger consideration of the social and economic consequences of protecting species
  5. Environmental Literacy Improvement Act–this is a good one.  Teaching about the environment must be designed to “acquire” knowledge, taught in a “balanced” way (you know, if evolution, then evolution must be examined critically), not designed to change any student behavior, attitudes or value (this is the best one–what is the purpose of learning?)  By the way, this is the bill that created an Environmental Education Council, except no one can be on the committee if they have ability in environmental science!).
  6. Environmental Priorities Act–An assessment of all environmental priorities based on “good science” and “sound economics” shall be undertaken by people without a background in environmental science; the Environmental Priorities Council will have 2 politicians, a state administrator selected by the Governor, a member of the chamber of commerce, and an economist. No members should have backgrounds in environmental science.  Remember, the ALEC bills are based on “academic research.”
  7. Founding Philosophy and Principles Act–A bill requiring all students to take and pass a course in America’s founding philosophy based on The Creator-endowed rights of the people.  It appears to be endorsing a propaganda type course, and for me it glaringly omits the key words used in the Environmental Literacy Improvement Act, and that is “critical thinking.”  The content of this course is not be questioned.  The bill promotes right-wing ideology.
  8. Founding Principles Act–basically the same as the previous act requiring students to learn that in a short time, the 13 colonies became the greatest and most powerful nation on earth.  More right-wing ideology.
  9. Free Enterprise Education Act–this is another humdinger.  A course in economics (no complaint here), but based on the idea that to get out of the Great Recession, which was caused by illegal and immoral behavior of well-educated adults in the financial and housing industry, students must take a course that tells them how the free enterprise system works!  Ideology at work again.
  10. Great Teachers and Leaders Act–teacher tenure will be based on student growth on academic tests, and tenure can be removed if the teacher has two consecutive bad years.  This bill endorses unsubstantiated claims that teacher effectiveness can be measured using student academic test scores.  It is an anti-teacher and anti-adminstrator bill that further supports the degradation of public school educators.  Shame on any legislator that supports this bill.
  11. Hard Science Resolution–you must read this one.  This bill requires that any government regulation have a strict and absolute basis in hard scientific fact and cut any arbitrary and imprecise regulations that might harm the free-maker competition and consumers.
  12. Higher Education Transparency Act–In this bill, colleges and universities must make available on their website all syllabi, curriculum vitae of each instructor, a budget report, distribution of last grades, and the college must also give a report to the governor. All of this information is already available on higher education institutions websites.  This is a bill that encroaches on academic freedom, and adds a new role for the governor, and that is to evaluate undergraduate courses in paleontology!
  13. Indiana Education Reform Package–It calls for charter schools, school scholarships (vouchers), teacher evaluations and licensing, teacher collective bargaining (none), turnaround academies and textbook act.
  14. Parent Trigger Act–Enables parents or teachers (50% +1) to take over a school and replace it with a charter school.  The movement is deceptive and fraudulent and is simply a way to open the doors of struggling schools to charter management pirates.

There you have it.  Only 14 of the more than 600 bills on the ALEC website.  It no wonder that our legislators don’t write their own legislation.  They don’t have to.  All they have to do is: Go Ask ALEC.

What is your opinion about state legislators making use of the model bills on the ALEC website, and then introducing them in their own state legislature as if they were the authors, and that they were introducing the bill to resolve an important state issue?

 

References

American Legislative Exchange Council. (2013). Model Legislation. In American Legislative Exchange Council. Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://www.alec.org/model-legislation/.