Oklahoma education influenced by interest group

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A new report sheds light on the influence of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation and its corporate backers on Oklahoma's education leaders and latest policies.

Through public records requests, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group released a report called "In the Public Interest" that shows the Foundation for Excellence in Education is writing and editing education laws and regulations in six states in ways that could benefit its private funders.

The group contends the arrangement is essentially a "pay-to-play" scheme in which corporations can influence policy and then reap the profits.

"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."

Email correspondence in Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Rhode Island show the foundation's frequent involvement with like-minded state superintendents and education department directors who have significant authority over purchasing and policy in their states.

These education leaders, including Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi, belong to a group called Chiefs for Change, which is an affiliate of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Tulsa World reported (http://is.gd/n6r3nq).

They all advocate for Jeb Bush's reform model, which includes charter schools and vouchers, online education, retention of low-performing third-graders and school accountability and teacher evaluation systems based on standardized test scores.

One email from fall 2011 showed Barresi as a guest of Louis A. Piconi, founder and senior vice president of Apangea Learning Inc., a distance learning company, at an event he hosted for Jeb Bush and then-Chiefs for Change leader and Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett.

In the Public Interest says Apangea is not a known funder of FEE, but Apangea and Barresi both contributed to Bennett's campaign. Indiana voters ousted Bennett from office in the fall but he was immediately hired to serve as Florida's new education commissioner.

In January 2012, Barresi's department announced it would be spending $470,000 on a pilot program with Apangea Learning Inc. of Pittsburgh, Pa., to provide supplemental, online math instruction and tutoring services to 10,000 eighth- through 10th-grade Algebra I students attending the lowest- and next-to-lowest-performing schools across Oklahoma.

The Apangea program was expanded statewide for 2012-13 at a cost of $1.5 million and is now called "Think Through Math." As of Jan. 31, 267 school districts, 584 schools and 64,667 students were participating from across Oklahoma.

Sherry Fair, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said Apangea won the state's math intervention program through an open and fair bidding process

"Obviously, she (Barresi) did accept the invitation, but when we selected Think Through Math, we had the RFP process in place and they won the bid," Fair said, adding, "We have had a lot of success with it."

Fair said Barresi makes no secret of her involvement with Chiefs for Change.

"She is a supporter of Jeb Bush's but she is involved in that group because she strongly believes in sharing best practices with the common goal of improving student achievement," Fair said.

An email from December 2011 indicates that the Bush foundation was heavily involved with the Oklahoma State Department of Education's writing of the rules used to implement legislation including the new A-F school report cards, changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act intended to end "social promotion," and online supplemental learning.

"Based on my work with your team, I don't anticipate any issues getting approval from your board, but we are happy to provide any kind of air cover - op eds, tweets, letters to the editor, and even expert testimony at the board meeting if you need it," wrote Mary Laura Bragg, director of state policy implementation at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in an email to Barresi.

Other emails show that Assistant State Superintendent Kerri White sought assistance with Oklahoma's application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act from Chiefs for Change and the Jeb Bush foundation and Bragg responded with a referral to John Bailey, whom she called, "our federal policy superstar."

Barresi's office isn't the only one seeking the input of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

In December, the Tulsa World reported on emails that showed Gov. Mary Fallin's chief of staff and policy director engaged foundation staffers in phone conferences with members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education in the midst of great controversy over new A-F school report cards.

Asked to respond to the D.C. group's allegations about foundation special interests, Fallin's spokesman said the governor's belief in Oklahoma's reform initiatives transcends foundation input.

"I don't have any direct knowledge of corporations or individuals who promote Jeb Bush or his group," said Alex Weintz. "Our involvement with him is as a fellow governor who knows Gov. Fallin personally. Jeb Bush has a perspective when it comes to education. He believes accountability measures such as A-F work; so does Gov. Fallin. The results in Florida were obviously successful. We hope we can achieve the same kind of results in Oklahoma."

Weintz said Fallin previously invited Bush to speak to a group of state legislators about initiatives and "we appreciate their support when it came to legislative outreach on that and as a resource at times."

In late November, Barresi organized a large delegation - 12 state Education Department employees, legislators and several state board of education members - to attend the foundation's national summit, an annual event, which was held in Washington, D.C.

An agenda for the event lists Barresi as a panelist at a session called "Transforming Education for the Digital Age," and state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, as a panelist at a session titled "Reaching More Students with Vouchers and Tax-credit Scholarships."

Fair said travel, hotel accommodations and some meal expenses were covered through "scholarships" from the Jeb Bush Foundation. She estimated state costs for other trip expenses at $1,000.

Another email obtained by In the Public Trust shows the foundation also paid for Barresi and a staff member to visit the Carpe Diem charter school in Arizona in May 2011. Jeb Bush has touted Carpe Diem schools as a digital model of school choice.

As chair of the Oklahoma CareerTech board, Barresi announced in January the panel had hired Robert Sommers, chief executive officer and managing partner of Carpe Diem Learning Systems, as the state's new CareerTech director.

Policy analysts and school officials called for greater public awareness about the situation and more caution on the part of state leaders.

"It's very important to bring these relationships to light. We're piling on accountability for students and teachers, but not for these private entities that are in many cases writing our education policies," said Gene Perry, policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. "These conflicts of interest are troubling because schools should be designed to educate kids, not make profits off of them."

Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman finds the foundation's influence on Oklahoma policy disturbing, given its powerful corporate backers. In the Public Interest reports foundation donors include for-profit companies such as the standardized test giant Pearson and education service provider McGraw-Hill, and K12, one of the nation's largest virtual school networks that includes the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy.

As Oklahoma's previous testing contractor, Pearson was paid more than $24 million in recent years, according to a recent state auditor's report, while McGraw-Hill was just awarded a contract that would be worth $28 million over the next five years.

The state is now in the third year of an $11 million four-year alternate testing contract with Pearson.

Lehman even questions why Oklahoma would be following the "Florida model" for school reforms when Oklahoma students outpace their Florida counterparts on the ACT college entrance exam.

In 2012, the average composite score in Florida was 19.8, compared to Oklahoma's 20.7 and the national average of 21.1.

"Why then would Oklahoma emulate Florida by enacting the '(Jeb) Bush reforms'?" he said. "The answer to this question is far more complicated than a simple score comparison between states."

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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