WASHINGTON — An employee of Jeb Bush’s education foundation was unequivocal when New Mexico’s top schools official needed someone to pay her travel costs to Washington to testify before Congress: The foundation would give her “whatever she needs.”

When Maine’s education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, lamented that he could not persuade the state Legislature to expand online learning in schools, a foundation employee assured him that Bush “will probably want to engage Governor (Paul) LePage directly to express our support for efforts to advance a bold agenda.”

The exchanges, revealed in emails from 2011 and 2012, illustrate the leading role Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education has played in many states since its creation in 2008, following the Republican’s two terms as governor of Florida.

The foundation has forged an unusual role mixing politics and policy – drafting legislation and paying travel expenses for state officials, lobbying lawmakers, and connecting public officials with industry executives seeking government contracts.

It also has sustained, and even expanded, Bush’s influence in the years since he left office and would no doubt be a focal point of his likely presidential campaign – one in which he would portray himself as a candidate with intellectual heft and a record of reform on an issue that affects millions of Americans.

But the foundation, from which Bush resigned as chairman last week as part of his preparations for a possible White House bid, has been criticized as a backdoor vehicle for major corporations to urge state officials to adopt policies that would enrich the companies.


The foundation has, for instance, pushed states to embrace digital learning in public schools, a costly transition that often requires new software and hardware. Many of those digital products are made by donors to Bush’s foundation, including Microsoft, Intel, News Corp., Pearson PLC and K12 Inc..

The foundation is likely to become a major point of contention in a Republican primary if Bush runs. The former governor will almost certainly single out the organization as evidence of his dedication to improving public schools, particularly those in poor and minority communities, by fighting what he calls “government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies” that “trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”

But many conservatives have become skeptical of national efforts to improve education following the No Child Left Behind Act, championed by then-President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s brother, and the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards. They may consider Bush’s foundation another example of powerful interests taking classroom decisions away from parents.

In most of the states where the education chiefs have worked closely with the foundation, K12 and Pearson have established virtual charter schools, in which students take their courses online and tax money flows to the companies.

Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, wrote in an email that the company, based in Herndon, Virginia, donates to Bush’s foundation because it shares a goal of “expanding opportunities for children and choices for parents.”

Brandon Pinette, a spokesman for Pearson, declined to answer questions about whether the company has benefited from its relationship with Bush’s foundation. He said the company has a “long, proud history of investing in and across the U.S., and this work includes a sponsorship of a variety of education organizations focused on improving learning.”

Bowen, who resigned as Maine’s education commissioner in 2013, said in an interview that donors to Bush’s foundation did not have “unusual” access to state decision-makers. But he acknowledged that the intertwining of policy and corporate interests is a reality of how education policy is crafted.

“You can’t throw a rock in Washington without hitting some association,” he said.

Donald Cohen, executive director of the liberal group In the Public Interest, said the arrangement allows companies the opportunity to influence public officials without disclosure.

“If companies want to go and directly lobby officials, they should go do that,” said Cohen, who used public-records requests to obtain thousands of email exchanges between the foundation and top state education officials and posted them online in 2012. “But using a 501(c)3 and Jeb Bush’s cachet in the name of good government and good policy in a move that will expand their market share is not okay.”

As a nonprofit, Bush’s foundation is not required to disclose its donors. It reported $10 million in income in 2012, according to tax documents. The group’s website lists most donors, with their contributions included in ranges. The site was updated Friday to list every donor that contributed last year.

Among the top donors in 2014, giving $500,000 to $1 million, was News Corp., which owns a company called Amplify that markets tablets, software and data analysis to school districts. News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch delivered a keynote speech at the Bush foundation’s annual meeting in 2011, when Amplify rolled out its tablet, saying it was time to “tear down an education system designed for the 19th century and replace it with one suited for the 21st.”

The donor lists show that the foundation has drawn funding from a wide range of sources, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charity arm of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the Walton Family Foundation, a major backer of charter schools.

In Maine, the foundation drafted a 2012 executive order, signed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, directing the state to develop a plan to expand digital learning. LePage wrote that the policy should adopt the “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” – a creation of Bush’s foundation that called for the elimination of legal and regulatory barriers to online education. He issued the order on Feb. 1 because the foundation designated it the first “National Digital Learning Day.”


Foundation staff members celebrated the move, telling Bowen in emails that Maine was “the first to issue an executive order on the 10 elements, which is spectacular.”

Bowen said Chiefs for Change was just one organization among many that help states craft education policy. “As a policymaker, you’re always looking for good ideas, some other state that’s tried something, some other governor or legislator or state ed chief that has a good idea.” .

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