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Learning Curve

  • An F for transparency
    “Look at this shiny thing over here!” – Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, Oct. 14, 2014.
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Corporate connection: Bush and Bennett

Email correspondence between Jeb Bush's Foundation for Educational Excellence and education officials in six states ties policies pushed by the foundation to corporate interests that stood to benefit from them, including one in which the former Florida governor held a monetary interest.

A public interest research group this week released copies of the correspondence from the Florida-based foundation:

"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."

Emails from Indiana were not included, but they could have been. Some of the correspondence shows the email recipients included then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and other top Indiana DOE officials, including Heather Neal, who now serves as Gov. Mike Pence's legislative liaison.

In one email, obtained from the Rhode Island Department of Education, foundation Director Patricia Levesque urged state officials to introduce SendHub, a communications program, into their state's schools. Her boss, Jeb Bush, was an investor in the start-up company, according to news reports.

In an article a year ago, I highlighted the extensive travel Bennett made in his third year in office, some of it paid for by Bush's foundation. Bennett also figures in the investigation from a link revealed by emails from Oklahoma:

An Oct. 7, 2011, email indicates that State Superintendent Janet Barresi was a guest of Louis A. Piconi -- founder & SVP of Strategic Activities, Apangea Learning Inc., a distance learning company -- at an event Piconi hosted for Jeb Bush and Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett. Apangea is not a known funder of FEE, but Apangea and Barresi contributed to Bennett's campaign.

A document from New Mexico reveals another Bennett link:

FEE provides its donors -- including for-profit digital education companies-access to the chiefs. A draft agenda for the Excellence in Action 2011 Summit blocked off two hours for "Chiefs for Change donor meetings" Another draft agenda for the meeting allocated nearly three hours to "Chiefs for Change donor meetings" The donors for the summit were The Walton Family Foundation, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The Broad Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation, Susan and Bill Oberndorf, GlobalScholar, Target, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Microsoft, State Farm, IQity, McGraw-Hill Education, Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, Intel, Pearson Foundation, Apex Learning, ETS, Electronic Arts, Koret Foundation, SMART Technologies, K12, Morgridge Family Foundation, Charter Schools USA, and Connections Academy. Demand for donor time was so high that Patricia Levesque wrote that she had to turn down opportunities for the chiefs to meet other representatives from companies.

My January 2012 article noted Bennett's participation at the October 2011 summit in San Francisco, accompanied by multiple members of his staff and Todd Huston, chairman of the Indiana Charter School Board, and now a state representative serving on the House Education Committee. Bennett later reported campaign contributions from several of the companies identified as donors to the foundation, which picked up travel and conference expenses for the Indiana participants.

Bennett's campaign benefactors included Walton family members, K12 Management and McGraw-Hill Education. Charter Schools USA is familiar to Indiana ed watchers as one of the companies hired as a turnaround operator for a struggling Indianapolis school.

The former Indiana superintendent, of course, lost his re-election bid in November and, not coincidentally, is now state education commissioner in Florida.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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