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Jeb Bush’s “Florida formula” of education privatization in North Carolina

In case you missed it, the News & Observer first reported this week that GOP leaders will gather privately in Kannapolis on Thursday to discuss their 2015 education agenda.

One of the key presenters at today’s closed door meeting? A representative from the education privatization group Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), which was founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

And if you follow education policy news at the national level, then maybe you didn’t miss the lengthy report filed this week by The Washington Post’s education reporter, Lyndsey Layton, which takes a close look at how Bush’s foundation has played a huge role behind the scenes in privatizing education at the state level since 2008.

But in case you did miss Layton’s story, here’s the foundation’s strategy:

Since its creation, the foundation has been largely devoted to exporting the “Florida formula,” an overhaul of public education Bush oversaw as governor between 1999 and 2007.

That agenda includes ideas typically supported by conservatives and opposed by teachers unions: issuing A-to-F report cards for schools, using taxpayer vouchers for tuition at private schools, expanding charter schools, requiring third-graders to pass a reading test, and encouraging online learning and virtual charter schools.

Layton notes that this agenda has already spread far and wide, having affected education policy in 28 states. While not mentioned in the Post story, it is worth noting that North Carolina is no stranger to the “Florida formula.”

In recent years, the Tar Heel state has seen the passage of legislation and policies that have opened the door for most of the initiatives that Bush’s foundation promotes. That includes taxpayer-funded school vouchers for students to attend private schools, the Read to Achieve law that requires all third grade students to be reading proficient by the end of third grade or else face retention, and the likely 2015 arrival of virtual charter schools that will be backed by controversial for-profit companies K12, Inc. and Pearson.

NC lawmakers are no stranger to Bush’s foundation, either. In March 2012, eleven lawmakers flew down to Florida to learn about their school voucher program (technically a taxpayer credit scholarship system), which was heavily supported by FEE. During that trip lawmakers also attended a luncheon with Bush and subsequently received campaign contributions from school choice advocates.

How did FEE, Bush’s foundation, move their agenda in other states? Their work, characterized as “ALEC-like” by the group In the Public Interest, is exposed through email exchanges between FEE employees and state education officials.

The emails, obtained through public records requests, reveal that the organization, sometimes working through its Chiefs For Change affiliate, wrote and edited laws, regulations and executive orders, often in ways that improved profit opportunities for the organization’s financial backers.

“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.”

In New Mexico, FEE played a big role in making sure the A-F school grading system for schools became a reality. And Mary Laura Bragg, who is in Kannapolis today talking with state lawmakers, had her thumb on its roll out, according to an email exchange.

North Carolina also adopted the A-F grading system when the legislature passed Senate leader Phil Berger’s Excellent Public Schools Act back in 2011. Proponents of the accountability system say that the school grades will help parents identify which schools are best for their children, but critics say the metrics are flawed and that schools serving a high number of low-income students could be falsely labeled as failing, paving the way for parents to seek alternative options.

Jeb Bush and his foundation also continue to be big supporters of the Common Core, in spite of the controversy the standards have incited across the nation. The Post story highlights how FEE is a recipient of large financial contributions from companies that have already heavily invested in the Common Core, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a testing company, and the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which has $43 million in contracts to develop Common Core-related tests. Mcgraw-Hill education is another donor and has a large stake in the Common Core.

So when NC lawmakers hear from FEE’s representative today, what else could be on their education agenda that they hope lawmakers will take into consideration as they prepare for the 2015 session?

FEE’s reform agenda supports ending teacher tenure (check), third grade retention of non-proficient readers (check), school choice (check), A-F school grades (check), Common Core (check), virtual charter schools (almost check) and compensating teachers based on student performance (moving toward that goal).

Many of FEE’s agenda items have already come to fruition in North Carolina. So what’s next? Stay tuned.

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