I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jeb Bush's Shill: What Conflict of Interest?

Mike Thomas used to be a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, where he regularly showered former Florida governor Jeb Bush with praise. Now Thomas works for Bush's reformy outlet, the Foundation for Educational Excellence, where he is paid to tut-tut at people for saying things they never actually said.

(How come no one on our side is offering jobs like this? I can misread blog posts with the best of them!)

But Thomas's blog looks like it's going to be about more than just smearing Bush's opponents; it's also going to produce spin when Bush gets caught up in conflicts of interest:

Recently a group called In the Public Interest made numerous allegations against the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd). These were based on e-mail exchanges that the group distorted and misinterpreted to advance its political agenda.

In the Public Interest is run by Donald Cohen, the former Political Director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO. His priority is protecting union teaching jobs, and therefore protecting the status quo in public education.  He has written that reform is a “right wing attack’’ on teacher unions, even though the movement has become bi-partisan and includes, among its leaders, President Barack Obama.
As Malcolm Glenn from the American Federation for Children puts it: “The traditional party breakdowns on school choice, the ideological breakdowns, are a thing of the past.”
Apparently Mr. Cohen did not get the memo. We will be happy to address any specific questions about the Foundation e-mails because we always have been very open about what we do. [emphasis mine]
See, Barack Obama and ExcelInEd FEE both like charter schools. And IPI's president used to be a labor leader. So there can't possibly be a conflict of interest on Jeb Bush's behalf! I mean, the logic is just so obvious...

Let's go to what IPI is actually saying about Jeb Bush and his reformy group:
Emails between the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), founded and chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and state education officials show that the foundation is writing state education laws and regulations in ways that could benefit its corporate funders. The emails, obtained through public records requests, reveal that the organization, sometimes working through its Chiefs For Change affiliate, wrote and edited laws, regulations and executive orders, often in ways that improved profit opportunities for the organization's financial backers.
"Testing companies and for-profit online schools see education as big business," said In the Public Interest Chair Donald Cohen. "For-profit companies are hiding behind FEE and other business lobby organizations they fund to write laws and promote policies that enrich the companies."
The emails conclusively reveal that FEE staff acted to promote their corporate funders' priorities, and demonstrate the dangerous role that corporate money plays in shaping our education policy. Correspondence in Florida, New Mexico, Maine, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Louisiana paint a graphic picture of corporate money distorting democracy. [emphasis mine]
Click through to read all of IPI's charges. For right now, let's stick with Florida, where Bush was governor:
• FEE staff sought legislation that would count the state test, known as FCAT, as more than 50% of the state's school accountability measure. FEE staffer Patricia Levesque wrote to a state official that she had negotiated the related language with state legislators, who were now "asking for the following which, the Foundation completely supports: FCAT shall be 'at least 50%, but no more than 60%' of a high school's grade." Pearson, the company that holds the $250 million FCAT contract and sponsors FEE through its foundation, has an obvious financial stake in ensuring that FCAT continues to be at the center of Florida's education system. 
• Levesque writes, "I think we need to add a sec onto this bill to give you/the department authority to set a state‐approved list of charter operators or private providers so districts can't pick poor performers to implement turnaround." At least one FEE donor, the for-profit Florida-based Charter Schools USA, could benefit from being placed on such a state-approved list. 
Charter Schools USA also could benefit from a "parent trigger" law, the passage of which, as Nadia Hagberg of FEE wrote, was the goal of a partnership between Bush's Florida-based organization (the Foundation for Florida's Future) and Parent Revolution: "The Foundation for Florida's Future worked closely with [Parent Revolution] throughout the process in Florida and they proved to be an invaluable asset." Parent trigger, which failed to pass during Florida's last legislative session, is a mechanism to convert neighborhood schools to charter schools.
Just today, an editorial in the Palm Beach Post calls out Bush for making the FCAT the center of his education policies to the detriment of Florida's public schools. So it's not just IPI that's bringing up the issue. What then, does Thomas have to say in Bush's defense to this specific allegation?

Nothing. His post is rife with reformy platitudes, but there is no word as to whether Pearson backs FEE, whether FEE's policies would directly benefit Pearson, and whether the expansion of the FCAT's role has genuinely helped Florida's students succeed academically.

Valerie Strauss points out something telling about FEE:
The Web site of the Foundation for Excellence in Education used to list some of their donors but no longer does and is not required to list all of its donors to the public under tax rules for 5013C organizations. However, it is known that the foundation has received support from for-profit companies K12 and Pearson and Amplify, as well as the nonprofit College Board. [emphasis mine]
Well, Mike Thomas swears that "...we always have been very open about what we do." If that's really true, Thomas and Bush should have no problems revealing the names of all of FEE's financial backers. That would be far more useful than posts filled with bromides about "reform," don't you think?

Come on, Jeb and Mike: you claim you're "very open about what we do." Prove it: who's paying your bills?
Yeah, the names escape me at the moment... I'll get right back to you...


Just-Ice? said...

Devious Jeb is a little sensitive about money. Jeb was speaking at a Gawd Offal Party fund raiser in Sarasota. Teachers were having a protest. I had a sign that said "WHERE'S OUR MONEY JEB?" He drove up in his little sports car with the top down stuck his arm straight up in the air and shot me a bird. Real class since children were present!

Duke said...

Them Bushes - all class...