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
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.
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.
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:
- Everything an educator needed to know about the merits of full-time virtual schools
- 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.