Selling Schools Out
    • MICROSOFT

      Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch, two of the tycoons who stand to benefit from a wave of school privatization laws, at a Microsoft CEO Summit in 2009.

Through Bush, education-technology companies have found a shortcut to encourage states to adopt e-learning reforms. Take his yearly National Summit on Education Reform, sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

At the most recent summit, held in San Francisco in mid-October, a group of more than 200 state legislators and state education department officials huddled in a ballroom over education-technology strategy. Rich Crandall, a state senator from Arizona, said to hearty applause that he had developed a local think tank to support the virtual school reforms he helped usher into law. Toward the end of the discussion, Vander Ark, acting as an emcee, walked around the room acknowledging lawmakers who had recently passed pro–education tech laws this year. He handed the microphone to Kelli Stargel, a state representative from Florida, who stood up and boasted of creating "virtual charter schools, so we can have innovation in our state."

Throughout the day, lawmakers mingled with education-technology lobbyists from leading firms, like Apex Learning and K12 Inc. Some of the distance learning reforms were taught in breakout sessions, like one called "Don't Let a Financial Crisis Go to Waste," an hourlong event that encouraged lawmakers to use virtual schools as a budget-cutting measure. Mandy Clark, a staffer with Bush's foundation, walked around handing out business cards, offering to e-mail sample legislation to legislators.

The lobbying was evident to anyone there. But for some of those present, Bush didn't go far enough. David Byer, a senior manager with Apple in charge of developing education business for the company, groaned and leaned over to another attendee sitting at the edge of the room after a lunch session. "You have this many people together, why can't you say, 'Here are the ten elements, here are some sample bills'?" said Byer to David Stevenson, who nodded in agreement. Stevenson is a vice president of News Corporation's education subsidiary, Wireless Generation, an education-technology firm that specializes in assessment tools. It was just a year ago that News Corp. announced its intention to enter the for-profit K-12 education industry, which Rupert Murdoch called "a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed."

As attendees stood up to leave the hall, the phalanx of lobbyists surrounding the room converged, buttonholing legislators and school officials. On a floor above the main hall, an expo center had been set up, with companies like McGraw-Hill, Connections Academy, K12 Inc., proud sponsors of the event, providing information on how to work with politicians to make education technology a reality.

Patricia Levesque, a Bush staffer speaking at the summit and the former governor's right hand when it comes to education reform, does not draw a direct salary from Bush's nonprofit despite the fact that she is listed as its executive director, and tax disclosures show that she spends about fifty hours a week at the organization. Instead, her lobbying firm, Meridian Strategies, supplies her income. The Foundation for Florida's Future, another Bush nonprofit, contracts with Meridian, as do online technology companies like IQ-ity Innovation, which paid her up to $20,000 for lobbying services at the beginning of this year. The unorthodox arrangement allows donors to Bush's group to avoid registering actual lobbyists while using operatives like Levesque to influence legislators and governors on education technology.

Levesque's contract with IQ-ity raises questions about Bush's foundation work. As Mother Jones recently reported, the founder of IQ-ity, William Lager, also founded an education company with a poor track record. Lager's other education firm, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is the largest provider of virtual schools in Ohio. ECOT schools have consistently underperformed; though the company serves more than 10,000 children, its graduation rate has never broken 40 percent. The company was fined for billing the state to serve more than 2,000 students in one month, when only seven children logged on during the same time period. Nevertheless, after Levesque spent at least two years as a registered lobbyist for Lager's firm, Bush traveled to Ohio to give the commencement speech for ECOT. "ECOT proves a glimpse into what's possible," Bush said with pride, "by harnessing the power of technology."

Levesque is no ordinary lobbyist. She is credited with encouraging the type of bare-knuckle politics now common in the wider education-reform movement. In an audio file obtained by The Nation, she and infamous anti-union consultant Richard Berman outlined a strategy in October 2010 for sweeping the nation with education reforms. The two spoke at the Philanthropy Roundtable, a get-together of major right-wing foundations. Lori Fey, a representative of the Michael Dell Foundation, moderated the panel discussion.

Rather than "intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…is there a way that we can get into it at an emotional level?" Berman asked. "Emotions will stay with people longer than concepts." He then answered his own question: "We need to hit on fear and anger. Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem." Berman's glossy ads, which have run in Washington, DC, and New Jersey, portray teachers unions as schoolyard bullies. One spot even seems to compare teachers to child abusers. Although Berman does not reveal his donors, he made clear in his talk that the foundations in the room were supporting his campaign.

Levesque ended the strategy discussion with a larger strategic question. She pointed to the example of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donating $100 million to Newark schools. She then asked the crowd to imagine instead raising $100 million for political races where we "could sway a couple of seats to have more education reform." "Just shifting a little bit of your focus," she added, noting that new politicians could have a greater impact.

Levesque's ask has become reality. According to author Steven Brill, ex–DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee's new group, StudentsFirst, raised $100 million within a few months of Levesque's remarks. Rhee's donors include Rupert Murdoch, philanthropist Eli Broad and Home Depot founder Ken Langone. Rhee's group has pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists.

A day before he opened his education reform conference to the media recently, Bush hosted another education meeting. This event, a private affair in the Palace Hotel, was a reconvening of investors and strategists to plan the next leg of the privatization campaign. Michael Moe, Susan Patrick, Tom Vander Ark and other major players were invited. I waited outside the event, trying to get what information I could. I asked Mayor Fenty how I could get in. "Just crash in, come on in," he laughed, adding, "so what company are you with?" When he learned that I was a reporter, he shook his head. "Oh, nah, you're not welcome, then."

An invitation had billed the exclusive gathering as a chance for "philanthropists and venture capitalists" to figure out how to "leverage each other's strengths" — a concise way to describe how for-profit virtual school companies are using philanthropy as a Trojan horse.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Tags: bill gates, charter schools usa, investigative journalism, investigative reporting, jeb bush, joel klein, k-12 inc., michael moe, news corp, online learning, patricia levesque, public schools, rupert murdoch, school choice week, school privatization, virtual schools

  • Lee Fang is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund and a contributing writer at The Nation magazine. He previously covered lobbying and conservative movements as a blogger with ThinkProgress.org.

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