(Reuters) - Soon after leaving office in 2007, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush launched the Foundation for Excellence in Education to “ignite a movement of reform, state by state.”
A close examination of the foundation’s work, including a review of thousands of pages of email, shows the staff of two dozen has worked aggressively - if not always with immediate success - to shape public policy.
Last fall the foundation flew Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and other state schools chiefs to San Francisco for a three-day policy summit on topics ranging from online learning to teacher tenure.
When he returned, Bowen sought help from the foundation, emailing the executive director, Patricia Levesque, to explain that he had “no ‘political’ staff who I can work with to move this stuff through the process.”
She promised the foundation’s full support. When he read her email, Bowen later wrote, “it was all I could do not to jump for joy.”
The foundation’s assistance takes many forms. The emails show staff writing and editing legislation, choreographing policy announcements and vetting a potential hire for a state education secretary. Last year a senior fellow at the Bush foundation even took a 10-month public contract to draft education policy for the state of New Mexico, while remaining on the foundation’s payroll.
If lawmakers balk at a Bush-backed bill, the foundation seeks to help state officials find private donors who can move the agenda forward.
In Maine, for instance, Commissioner Bowen emailed the Bush foundation in January to report that a legislative committee had “just killed off a digital learning bill we were working, so we’re back to square one ...”
He proposed finding private funding for a task force that would draft a master plan to bring Bush’s online education agenda to Maine.
“I will help you,” replied Fonda Anderson, chief fundraiser for the Bush foundation. “Rock on.”
The funding never materialized, but Bowen did set up a Digital Learning Advisory Group to work on the topic.
In another exchange, Executive Director Levesque sent Bowen model language for a bill requiring every high school to offer four Advanced Placement classes.
“I know the policy would have a great impact in Maine,” she wrote, “especially if the requirement can be fulfilled through online learning.” She volunteered to testify in favor of the proposal and promised help as well from the College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement tests.
Levesque is a registered lobbyist for the College Board. Both she and Tom Rudin, a senior vice president for the College Board, said they did not consider her dual roles a conflict of interest because Bush’s foundation and the College Board share the goal of promoting Advanced Placement classes to get students ready for college.
Rudin said the College Board did not end up testifying in Maine but has worked with Levesque to promote AP classes in states including North Carolina, Wisconsin and Mississippi. Maine has not put an AP mandate in place but has a task force working on how to encourage more students to take the classes, a spokesman for the education department said.
The emails to and from Bush foundation staff were among hundreds obtained through public-records requests by In the Public Interest, a nonprofit research group that opposes the privatization of public assets such as schools, prisons and libraries.
The group’s executive director, Donald Cohen, said he found the foundation’s hands-on involvement in crafting state policy alarming given its donor list, which includes companies that create online curricula, host virtual classrooms and run public cyber-schools, all for profit.
“Out of the public eye, private interests are moving legislation that they will profit from. That’s no way to run a state,” Cohen said.
The companies say they donate to the Bush foundation solely to further discussion of education issues, just as they sponsor many other groups, including the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Education Writers Association and the National Governors Association.
Education Commissioner Bowen said it’s “ludicrous” to think that a corporate donor - or, for that matter, Jeb Bush - could dictate state policy. He welcomes the foundation’s help and connections to potential funders, Bowen said, but he won’t adopt any agenda blindly; his litmus test for all ideas is whether they will help Maine’s children learn.
“Whatever proposals I take forward, from Governor Bush or anyone else, have to go through a public process,” Bowen said. He wishes critics would be “a little less focused on where ideas come from,” he said, and instead spend more time considering whether it’s “the right policy for the state and the nation.”
Reporting by Stephanie Simon; editing by Lee Aitken, Prudence Crowther and Douglas Royalty