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Did He Say “Education!?” I Think He Meant “Corporation.”

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ProgressNow New Mexico has brought forward a complaint to the IRS claiming the corporate-backed education reform group Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) is violating the agency’s policies.  The group, led by former Florida governor and possible 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush, is being accused of failing to disclose payments and expenditures concerning travel for public officials.  In their letter, Progress Now New Mexico says:

…FEE “has failed to disclose payments — or as the Foundation calls them, scholarships — for public official travel on its Form 990s as required by the IRS.” ProgressNow executive director Patrick Davis argued that “it is possible these unreported payments to the government officials may be deemed to provide a private inurement in violation of IRS regulations.”

In what it calls an “apparent violation of IRS regulations,” ProgressNow noted that records show FEE paid for a trip by New Mexico public education secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, who previously served under Bush as Florida’s deputy education commissioner, to testify in the U.S. Congress in support of devoting federal funds to virtual education. (ProgressNow also notes over $30,000 spent by FEE on first-class travel for Bush.)

This is not Jeb Bush’s first controversy surrounding education reform efforts.  Earlier this year a set of thousands of emails showed that his group shared ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  This calls into question FEE’s ultimate goal: To positively impact schools? Or to positively impact donors?

Background on the IRS complaint is provided by Salon writer Josh Eidelson:

In response to an inquiry, FEE referred Salon to a Tuesday statement from communications director Jaryn Emhof saying it “openly offers its expertise to legislators and policy makers interested in improving schools and raising student achievement.” The statement continued, “We fully comply with IRS rules when providing policy research and expertise and will continue to do so.” FEE said it was “not surprising” that “a partisan organization that has a history of opposing education reforms that put students first, would attack efforts to improve the quality of education for children across America.”

Asked about the ProgressNow complaint, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told Salon she wasn’t familiar with the specific allegations, but expressed no surprise. “Jeb Bush is as opportunistic as the summer day is long,” said Weingarten, calling his foundation “terrible actors.” She added, “Don’t use children as your wedge, or as your front to make money. And that’s what Jeb Bush’s foundation does all the time … just follow the money.”

FEE’s stated agenda includes “ending tenure, the implementation of data-based evaluations and compensation, and alternative paths to certification/licensure”; “policies that empower families to choose a public, charter, private, virtual or home school”; and “the use of technology to offer students access to a high-quality, customized education and empower teachers to help their students succeed.” Bush and FEE CEO Patricia Levesque have played a key role in the push to pass an anti-union “parent trigger” law in Florida, which has been defeated on tied state Senate votes two years in a row.

ProgressNow also notes that many who attended the conference headlined by former Gov. Bush were representatives of companies who would directly benefit from the proposed “reforms”:

This year’s annual FEE’s ed reform summit kicked off Thursday morning with a keynote address from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the potential presidential aspirant (and son and brother to ex-presidents) who chairs the group. ProgressNow’s Davis noted in his IRS letter that the attendees at FEE’s summits include not only legislators but FEE donors “many of whom are for profit corporations selling educational products …” The Nation’s Lee Fang charged in a 2011 investigation that “Through Bush, education-technology companies have found a shortcut to encourage states to adopt e-learning reforms.” The same year, Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer wrote that by diverting funding, virtual schools, like vouchers, “can wreak havoc on public school budgets — which, to Bush and others working to privatize elements of the education system, may be exactly the point.”

In a statement, ProgressNow’s Davis compared FEE’s role in education policy to that which the American Legislative Exchange Council played in connecting gun manufacturers and legislators to pass “stand your ground.” “This tax-exempt organization,” he said, “is serving as a dating service for corporations selling educational products – including virtual schools – to schools chiefs responsible for making policies and cutting the checks.”

Sadly, this type of approach is germane to the world of corporate education reform. Lost in the news shuffle surrounding the Government Shutdown was the fact that new legislation was brought forward which redefines the term “highly qualified teachers.”  This was a major victory for groups like FEE. However it was a major loss for underprivileged students:

In language that does not give a hint about its real meaning, the deal extends by two years legislation that allows the phrase “highly qualified teachers” to include students still in teacher training programs — and Teach For America’s recruits who get five weeks of summer training shortly after they have graduated from college, and are then placed in some of America’s neediest schools…

Under No Child Left Behind,  all children are supposed to have highly qualified teachers, school districts are supposed to let parents know which teachers are not highly qualified, and these teachers are supposed to be equitably distributed in schools. They aren’t. It turns out that teachers still in training programs are disproportionately concentrated in schools serving low-income students and students of color, the very children who need the very best the teaching profession has to offer. The inequitable distribution of these teachers also has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities.

Read Eidelson’s entire piece here.


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