Foundation Influences State School Policies, Laws

By Andrea Eger; Kim Archer | Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK), February 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Foundation Influences State School Policies, Laws


Andrea Eger; Kim Archer, Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK)


Read the documents showing the Oklahoma connections

A new report sheds light on the influence of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation and its corporate backers on Oklahoma's education leaders and latest policies.

Through public records requests, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group released a report called "In the Public Interest" that shows the Foundation for Excellence in Education is writing and editing education laws and regulations in six states in ways that could benefit its private funders.

The group contends the arrangement is essentially a "pay-to- play" scheme in which corporations can influence policy and then reap the profits.

"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."

Email correspondence in Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Rhode Island show the foundation's frequent involvement with like-minded state superintendents and education department directors who have significant authority over purchasing and policy in their states.

These education leaders, including Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi, belong to a group called Chiefs for Change, which is an affiliate of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

They all advocate for Jeb Bush's reform model, which includes charter schools and vouchers, online education, retention of low- performing third-graders and school accountability and teacher evaluation systems based on standardized test scores.

$1.97 million spent

One email from fall 2011 showed Barresi as a guest of Louis A. Piconi, founder and senior vice president of Apangea Learning Inc., a distance learning company, at an event he hosted for Jeb Bush and then-Chiefs for Change leader and Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett.

In the Public Interest says Apangea is not a known funder of FEE, but Apangea and Barresi both contributed to Bennett's campaign. Indiana voters ousted Bennett from office in the fall but he was immediately hired to serve as Florida's new education commissioner.

In January 2012, Barresi's department announced it would be spending $470,000 on a pilot program with Apangea Learning Inc. of Pittsburgh, Pa., to provide supplemental, online math instruction and tutoring services to 10,000 eighth- through 10th-grade Algebra I students attending the lowest- and next-to-lowest-performing schools across Oklahoma.

The Apangea program was expanded statewide for 2012-13 at a cost of $1.5 million and is now called "Think Through Math." As of Jan. 31, 267 school districts, 584 schools and 64,667 students were participating from across Oklahoma.

Sherry Fair, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said Apangea won the state's math intervention program through an open and fair bidding process

"Obviously, she (Barresi) did accept the invitation, but when we selected Think Through Math, we had the RFP process in place and they won the bid," Fair said, adding, "We have had a lot of success with it."

'Air cover'

Fair said Barresi makes no secret of her involvement with Chiefs for Change.

"She is a supporter of Jeb Bush's but she is involved in that group because she strongly believes in sharing best practices with the common goal of improving student achievement," Fair said.

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. …

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