Reporters across the nation are sifting through the emails which In the Public Interest released two weeks ago. It’s that drip, drip, drip you hear. Now this Associated Press story about contacts Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) made with Oklahoma state education commissioner Janet Barresi, one of FEE’s Chiefs for Change:
An email from December 2011 indicates that the Bush foundation was heavily involved with the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s writing of the rules used to implement legislation including the new A-F school report cards, changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act intended to end “social promotion,” and online supplemental learning.
“Based on my work with your team, I don’t anticipate any issues getting approval from your board, but we are happy to provide any kind of air cover — op eds, tweets, letters to the editor, and even expert testimony at the board meeting if you need it,” wrote Mary Laura Bragg, director of state policy implementation at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in an email to Barresi.
Other emails show that Assistant State Superintendent Kerri White sought assistance with Oklahoma’s application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act from Chiefs for Change and the Jeb Bush foundation and Bragg responded with a referral to John Bailey, whom she called, “our federal policy superstar.”.
Has Bragg tipped the Foundation’s hand? All of the emails that In the Public Interest acquired are from state’s where Bush, through his FEE, has recruited Chiefs for Change. His foundation continues to support Barresi with op-eds, most recently this from conservative writer Chester Finn. A former Florida Department of Education staffer prior to going to work for FEE, Bragg’s offer of “air cover” in the form of “tweets, op-eds and letters to the editor” reveals the Foundation’s propaganda template.
Bush’s FEE cannot exist without the idea that Florida’s education model is superior to all others. That idea became imperiled last spring in the aftermath of the 2012 FCAT Writes debacle and Florida was subjected to a massive spin campaign that was coordinated between Governor Rick Scott’s staff, the Florida Department of Education and the FEE. Scathing Purple Musings wrote about them here, here, here and here. The episode fueled a revolt against Bush’s FCAT and high-stakes testing regime in the form of resolutions from a plurality of Florida 67 local school boards. It eventually resulted in the resignation of one of Bush’s hand-picked Chiefs for Change, Gerard Robinson.
Does the offer for “op-eds” mean that FEE ghost writes, too? Observers in Florida have been pondering that question for some time. CEO Patricia Levesque can get her opinion pieces published in a major Florida paper anytime she wants. So can Bush, but the two know they cannot be the lone voices. In June 2012, then speaker-in-waiting Will Weatherford used talking points identical to those of Levesque in an op-ed as part of the FCAT Writes PR blitz. Bush loyalists John Winn and Kathleen Shanahan had similar op-eds published during the time.
Not all Oklahomans buy into the myth or the wisdom of Bush’s Florida model. More from the AP story:
Policy analysts and school officials called for greater public awareness about the situation and more caution on the part of state leaders.
“It’s very important to bring these relationships to light. We’re piling on accountability for students and teachers, but not for these private entities that are in many cases writing our education policies,” said Gene Perry, policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “These conflicts of interest are troubling because schools should be designed to educate kids, not make profits off of them.”
Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman finds the foundation’s influence on Oklahoma policy disturbing, given its powerful corporate backers. In the Public Interest reports foundation donors include for-profit companies such as the standardized test giant Pearson and education service provider McGraw-Hill, and K12, one of the nation’s largest virtual school networks that includes the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy.
As Oklahoma’s previous testing contractor, Pearson was paid more than $24 million in recent years, according to a recent state auditor’s report, while McGraw-Hill was just awarded a contract that would be worth $28 million over the next five years.
The state is now in the third year of an $11 million four-year alternate testing contract with Pearson.
Lehman even questions why Oklahoma would be following the “Florida model” for school reforms when Oklahoma students outpace their Florida counterparts on the ACT college entrance exam.
In 2012, the average composite score in Florida was 19.8, compared to Oklahoma’s 20.7 and the national average of 21.1.
“Why then would Oklahoma emulate Florida by enacting the ‘(Jeb) Bush reforms’?” he said. “The answer to this question is far more complicated than a simple score comparison between states.”
Indeed. Floridians are used to Bush’s FEE picking and choosing data they like and would be sure to dismiss these ACT scores. In the past year they’ve brushed aside troubling remediation rates of Florida’s college freshmen as well as the state’s graduation rates. But they routinely tout Florida’s 4th grade reading scores as it justifies their 3rd grade retention stand, and anything else that preserves the Florida model myth.