Jeb Bush ed reform group accused of abusing nonprofit status to help corporations

Jeb Bush scored a coup in the shutdown deal -- but his anti-union ed reform group faces a new IRS complaint

Published October 21, 2013 4:44PM (EDT)

Jeb Bush                                  (Reuters/David Manning)
Jeb Bush (Reuters/David Manning)

Wednesday night, the House and Senate passed a deal ending the government shutdown, raising the debt ceiling, and extending legislation that broadened the federal definition of “highly qualified teachers” to cover those in programs like Teach for America. That barely noticed inclusion was the latest coup for the bipartisan, corporate-backed education reform agenda pushed by groups including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education – which now faces an IRS complaint brought by opponents on the left.

In a Tuesday letter to the IRS’ acting commissioner, ProgressNow New Mexico alleged that 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.) In an email to Salon, New Mexico Public Education Department spokesperson Aimee Barabe said the complaint "isn't against Secretary Skandera at all," and called it "a political stunt by a discredited left-wing group." Barabe said the department "adheres to state and federal laws -- in this situation and all others."

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 New Mexico is an affiliate of the decade-old national nonprofit ProgressNow, whose board includes an official from the National Education Association, the country’s largest union. The complaint is based on public records acquired by In the Public Interest, a union-backed project critical of privatization.

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 education 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.”

AFT's Weingarten accused Bush and company of hypocrisy. "Be transparent about your interests," she urged, "as opposed to saying that the rest of us are special interests, and trying to marginalize us based upon that, and obfuscating the profit-making motive that underlies a lot of what they do."

By Josh Eidelson

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