Jeb Bush Comes Out of Hiding and Joins Desperate FCAT PR Counterattack

At some point, Jeb Bush was going to have to take ownership of the FCAT disaster. The Orlando Sentinel‘s Leslie Postal reports that the foundation run by Bush has joined the PR effort of  Florida Governor Rick Scott to fight back against growing FCAT outrage.

A public relations firm and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education organization helped the state craft a message that would explain this year’s low FCAT scores to the public

Gov. Rick Scott’s office also weighed in, suggesting the Florida Department of Education should make it clear FCAT scores are expected to drop because the state has raised academic standards.

This “FCAT messaging” help is described in emails between DOE and the Governor’s staff available on Scott’s new “sunburst” website. The emails suggest Bush’s groups were in the thick of the discussions on how to publicly discuss lower FCAT scores — a fact that won’t surprise too many Florida education watchers.

In one email, the legislative director for a Bush foundation (there are two) sent a message about a conference call in which the pr firm, GMMB (one that does a lot of work for the Gates Foundation), “will explain the communication strategy to all of you and will provide (initial) key messages and tough Q & A for us to share.”

That message was sent to key DOE and Scott staff but also to influential business groups, like Florida Realtors and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, as well as state education associations (but no, not the Florida Education Association).

The goal was to explain to the public why FCAT scores and school grades were likely to drop (tougher standards and revamped FCAT exams) and why the tougher expectations were important in the long run (students need to know more to be successful in the global economy).

The goal also was to help the state weather criticism — which came fast and furious after FCAT writing scores were released last week. The ”FCAT Communication plan” the groups crafted said it aimed to ”win support and understanding for higher standards in our state as we move through a volatile period” brought on by those higher standards and corresponding lower scores.

The work on the FCAT message included several focus groups and is now visible on the education department’s new, parent-focused websites. One website, for example, includes a “Q and A” very similar to one the GMMB sent to the Foundation for Excellence in Education (one of Bush’s groups), the emails show.

The websites already have been criticized by the parent group, Fund Education Now, which called them “spin” in a statement issued this morning and said “truth is missing in DOE campaign.”

The group, founded by three Orlando mothers, said the state is using the websites to sell its policies, such as holding back third graders who don’t pass FCAT reading, rather than provide unbiased information.

The messaging work looks to continue, as an email meeting alert sent to DOE, Scott and Bush folks notes there’s to be another “FCAT Communications Meeting” on May 30.

No person has as much invested in FCAT being the end-all it is in Florida as does Bush. He wasn’t going to be able to stay on the sidelines. But can Bush continue to be seen as separate from Pearson and their contractor-client relationship with the state of Florida?  Pearson, a major financial backer of Bush’s foundation, is essentially paying for the PR effort Bush is doing on their behalf.

The relative silence of state lawmakers who have marched in lockstep with anything Bush  wanted is telling. Is it that they realize that high-stakes testing in general and FCAT in particular are finally facing voter outrage? Bush’s entrance into the fray leaves him no way out. He will have sell the moral case for testing to Floridians who have come to know these as Bush’s tests.


About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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