Jeb, FEE, and the SDE: Why Entanglements Matter (Part One)
When times are tough, you find out who your friends are. When someone does an open records search of emails, you find out who public figures’ friends are. You also find out who is in control of public policy.
When the non-profit In the Public Interest released its database featuring thousands of emails between states and various outside groups with a for-profit interest in education, I tried to take it all in. I’ve read all the emails on the Oklahoma page of their database, and you can too. I’ll give you my thoughts on several specific emails in part two of this blog. First, I want to provide a little background about some of the key players in this story.
In the Public Interest
Before Valerie Straus wrote about all of this for the Washington Post, I had never heard of this group. Here is how the non-profit Washington, D.C. group describes itself:
In the Public Interest is a comprehensive resource center on privatization and responsible contracting. It is committed to equipping citizens, public officials, advocacy groups, and researchers with the information, ideas, and other resources they need to ensure that public contracts with private entities are transparent, fair, well-managed, and effectively monitored, and that those contracts meet the long-term needs of communities.
In the Public Interest is funded by the Partnership for Working Families, also a DC-based non-profit. According to Guidestar, for tax year 2010 (most recent year listed), their total revenue was $2.3 million, mostly from donations. They finished the year with just under $2 million in assets. I do not have information on who their major donors are.
Chiefs for Change
This organization that used to claim representation from nine states, but now only counts eight. With Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett losing his re-election bid last fall (and subsequently being hired as Florida’s schools’ chief), that state no longer appears on their masthead. They get their funding from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an innocuous-sounding group. The purpose of FEE, as described on their website, is to:
Founded by former Governor Jeb Bush in 2008, the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s (Excel in Ed) unique contribution is working with decision makers on developing, adopting and implementing reform policies. We are a hands-on, how-to organization that provides model legislation, rule-making expertise, implementation strategies, and public outreach. Our staff has years of experience working with state and local governments, legislative bodies, in the classroom, and with the media.
They’re completely straightforward about their purpose. They had $8.3 million in revenue in 2011 (Guidestar’s most recent year for them). Their tax form lists their end-of-year holdings as $9.5 million. Their largest listed expenditure was a two-day summit “designed to provide lawmakers and policyshapers with the policies and strategies to improve the quality of education.” Expenses for this summit were $1.09 million. Revenues received were about $84,000. This is not a conference designed to help the organization break even.
The FEE website lists the conference agenda here. I have no idea which “lawmakers and policyshapers” (not a real word, by the way) attended the conference, but those who did were able to enjoy sessions such as Fed Up With Failure?
America is experiencing a renaissance in education. Yet, nearly every state in the nation faces a chronic problem with a pool of historically poor-performing schools. How do you turnaround a school or school district that has fundamentally institutionalized failure? Learn how bold leaders are altering the course of history at these schools and changing the lives of students who attend them.
This partial speaker list for the summit reads as a who’s who of special interests and known critics of public education.
- Tony Bennett – then Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction
- Tom Luna – Idaho Superintendent of Education
- Bryan Hassel, Co-Director, Public Impact
- Hanna Skandera – then New Mexico Secretary-Designate of Public Education
- Matt Ladner – Senior Advisor on Policy and Research, FEE
- Patricia Levesque – Executive Director, FEE
- Joel Klein – Executive VP and CEO, Education Division News Corporation
- Gene Maeroff – author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
- Ben Austin – Executive Director, Parent Revolution
- Paul Pastorek – Former Louisiana State Superintendent of Education
- John Danner – Co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Education
- Rick Ogston – Founder and Executive Director, Carpe Diem Collegiate High School
- Darren Reed – Vice President, Blended Schools, K12, Inc.
- Julie Young, President and CEO, Florida Virtual School
- Jay Greene – Department Head and 21st Century Chair in Education Reform, University of Arkansas
- Clark Jolley – Oklahoma State Senator
- Jed Wallace – President and CEO, California Charter Schools Association
- Fernando Zulueta – President, Academica Corporation
As with In the Public Interest, I don’t have details on who the biggest contributors to FEE are, but somebody has an interest in promoting reform if they are willing to lose a million dollars a year on a two-day summit. I don’t know anything about the accommodations for attendees, but a month before the summit, the Chiefs for Change joined Tony Bennett (the school superintendent, not the singer) at Don Shula’s No Name Lounge for dinner during a PARCC (one of the Common Core testing consortia). Suffice it to say that the Chiefs and summiteers weren’t eating at Chili’s. Nor were they buying their own dinners.
This background is important to understand. Jeb Bush founded FEE. Chiefs for Change is a subsidiary of FEE. Lawmakers attend FEE conferences, receive royal treatment, and hear tales from those with a financial interest in policy change. They hear continuously that public education is failing and they can save the children. They hear that teachers and their unions conspire to limit student growth. They get scripted talking points and contacts to help them in shaping laws and implementing policy.
In Part Two, I look at a selection of emails from the database, including messages to and from SDE staff (Including Barresi), as well as exchanges among FEE staff.