The current New Yorker has a long article on Jeb Bush’s role in the development of school choice. The outline of the story is nothing new. Jeb Bush launched charter schools and vouchers for private schools in Florida. He based charter school grades on individual student’s achievement gains rather than school level improvement. This offered a way to pressure teachers, because achievement would be measured at the classroom level.
According to the New Yorker article, a Bush appointee stated that Bush saw an opportunity to break the teacher’s union because it was viewed as a stalwart of the Democratic Party.
Perhaps even Jeb Bush is surprised at the growth of the choice movement. The real story, however, is behind the scenes.
Charter schools mushroomed as part of the real estate boom in Florida. They opened as part of new subdivisions and were called Mc Charters as they proliferated. Bush facilitated their expansion and also created a private school voucher program paid with tax payer dollars. Florida’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. In response, Bush created the current tax credit scholarship program that gets around the constitutional ban on sending public money to private, religious schools.
A small group of Bush associates launched businesses that have reaped millions of dollars from school choice ventures. This story is not as well known. The education industry in Florida alone is huge. Pearson, the testing company that has been administering the FCAT, earned $250 million dollars over four years. These assessment programs are supposed to give accountability for the public money.
A Bush family friend launched Imagine schools, Florida’s third largest for-profit charter chain. (It should be noted that school choice has become bipartisan. Vice President Biden’s brother runs the for-profit Mavericks charter chain in Florida.}
Florida’s second largest for-profit charter management company, Charter Schools USA, was founded by Jonathan Hage after he helped Jeb Bush launch a charter school. Jonathan Hage’s schools bring in $300 million in revenue. One view of how this is done was reported by the Hillsborough League in the post: Charter School Explosion: Follow the Money. The business interests spread from managing charters and associated real estate to creating companies for tutoring and educational materials.
Florida’s largest for-profit charter management company, Academica, is currently under U.S. DOE investigation for fiscal irregularities. The head of Academica is the brother in-law of Erik Fresen, the Chair of the Florida House sub Committee of Educational Appropriations. Representative Fresen is also named in a conflict of interest charge. This is the second time he has been confronted with allegations of conflict of interest in regards to charter schools.
Influence peddling has been an integral part of the school choice movement. Jeb Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education. In 2012 the New Yorker reports that the foundation earned $10 million mostly from education companies. Its head, Patricia Levesque a former Bush aide, lobbies state commissioners on behalf of these companies. She is the wife of the Florida Legislature’s attorney. He cleared Erik Fresen of his first conflict of interest allegation. The Florida Legislature did pass a bill in 2014 to curb the lobbying and campaign funding activities of the private organization, Step Up for Students, that administers the tax credit scholarship program.
What comes through in the article is the extraordinary amount of money at stake in the debate over public education. Rupert Murdoch called it a 500 billion dollar industry. A handful of politically connected people have been able to exploit the possibilities to make fortunes from tax payers. In the name of helping improve the achievement of struggling students, public schools are being privatized. The students have not been successful, but the entrepreneurs have.