Salvos JebFest: The Education Miracle That Isn’t

Jennifer C. Berkshire

Jeb Bush’s annual education summit has barely begun, but already the scholarship window at the Sheraton Boston is doing a brisk business. It’s an early morning in October, and elected officials are lined up outside of the space that usually serves as the hotel coatroom. They are applying for payments that will cover the cost of their travel to Boston and back, along with two nights at the hotel: cityscape or Charles River views, their choice.

These scholarships are a sweet deal—especially if you’re, say, a local school board member who rarely gets to experience an all-expenses-paid junket. They’re also, if not illegal, then somewhere between ash grey and gunmetal on the ethics spectrum. In fact, just one day before the summit, advocacy group ProgressNow New Mexico filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, known in all seriousness as FEE, had failed to disclose payments to public officials on its tax forms. The IRS requires nonprofits to report payments for public officials’ travel and entertainment if they exceed $1,000.

Such arcane niceties of nonprofit compliance are far afield from the main event today, however. The grand ballroom has been abuzz all morning because the man of the hour, Jeb Bush himself, is about to take the stage. The National Summit on Education Reform, a.k.a. JebFest 2013, is officially under way.

Even in the comically overcrowded landscape of organizations seeking to fix our failed and failing public schools and at last put students first, Bush’s FEE cuts a distinctive figure. Started by the former Florida governor in 2008, FEE assumes that business leaders know exactly what it is that the nation’s long-suffering schoolchildren need to succeed. It therefore follows, you see, that elected officials of both parties should serve as the handmaids of these captains of industry. The main job, for elected officials and policy professionals alike, is to clear the educational scene of the failed and destructive conceits of public-sector pedagogy so that business can deliver the goods. For the kids, you understand.

On stage, Jeb, who resembles less an aspiring presidential candidate than a higher-end Rotarian, serves up the education-reform equivalent of red meat. Our classrooms are mired in mediocrity, he laments—a sad and sorry state that jeopardizes America’s status as the most dominant nation on earth. Worse yet, those invested in the status quo of failure—an enormous army into which he lumps the nation’s 3.3 million teachers—are fighting harder than ever to keep it. He gazes out over the tops of his spectacles, shaking his head slowly, morosely: “Empires do not go quietly into the night.” But there’s good news, too, and lest his audience slump into despair, Bush morphs into the shiny-suited salesman whose products are guaranteed to put us on a path to excellence—if only we’d let them.

Jeb is serving up the education-reform equivalent of red meat.

The products are familiar: more charter schools, more vouchers, more tax-credit scholarships (a complex boondoggle in which corporations can claim a fistful of tax deductions by giving money to nonprofits that grant private-school scholarships). But it’s when Jeb starts talking about technology that he really takes flight. It’s one of FEE’s articles of faith that the solutions to our great educational dilemmas are a mere click away—if, that is, the schools and the self-interested dullards who run them would just accept the limitless possibilities of technology. Of course, these gadgets don’t come cheap. And this means that, like virtually all the other innovations touted by our postideological savants of education reform, the vision of a tech-empowered American student body calls for driving down our spending on teaching (labor costs account for the lion’s share of the $600 billion spent on public education in the United States each year) and pumping up our spending on gizmos.

Some of these wonder gizmos are on display here today. On hand to demonstrate the miracles of tablet technology is ed-tech company Amplify, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and headed up by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.[*] The tablet, which comes preloaded with Amplify’s “exclusive educational platform”—and stay tuned for a lineup of soon-to-be-released time-and-geography-bending literary games, including one in which Tom Sawyer battles the Brontë sisters—is one of the few products here for students. The real growth industry is the measurement of so-called teacher effectiveness. That’s the amount by which teachers are able to boost student test scores each year—an amount that’s also, in the numbers-incentivized world of ed reform, the basis for promotions and pay increases. So global software maker SAS is showcasing its SAS® EVAAS® software, which lets school districts check the effectiveness of prospective teachers as easily as they might access a credit score. “Too many tests, not enough time?” is the question posed by Scantron, which promises to make measurement itself measurably more efficient. Infamous for devising the tidal wave of bubbled test-taking sheets that took over American public school classrooms beginning in the 1970s, Scantron has since moved into the more lucrative market of assessments, offering high-tech systems that can chart everything from individual academic performance to diversity within a school’s student population.

An unquestioning faith in the power of technology to transform teaching and learning gives the proceedings here the feel of an old-fashioned church revival. During each of the strategy sessions I attend, someone stands up to tell a miracle story about technology’s redemptive powers. In the tale related by Howard Stephenson, a state senator from Utah, students seem to gain a year’s worth of math knowledge every time they pick up their one-to-one devices. Stephenson brings genuine passion to his rendition of this implausible fable, and you can feel the energy level in the room lift. The Chinese are on notice. The Finns too. Or at least they would be if there wasn’t always somebody standing in the way—the teachers’ unions, the education enterprise, or the emerging enemy du jour: the colleges that prepare teachers to teach.

Changing of the Grade

Every organization has a creation myth, and FEE’s is that while in office Jeb Bush presided over a Florida education miracle—one that prompted other state officials to flock to the Florida experiment and clamor en masse for Jeb’s secret sauce.

Bush attributes an increase in student test scores during his governorship to the letter-grade report cards issued to schools soon after he came into office.[**] The report-card plan centers on a concept so simple that even a politician can understand it: it assigns schools an A through F grade based on student test scores so that parents, local leaders, and even realtors know whether the public school around the corner is failing or merely flailing.

Systems like these, one of which is almost certainly making its way to a state or district near you, have proven irresistible to reformers. In speeches, the systems can be made to seem infallible—but school grades can always be changed, for the right person and the right reason. Take the case of poor Tony Bennett, former education chief in Indiana and Florida. After losing reelection to his Hoosier chancellorship in 2012, Bennett landed in Florida. It seemed a perfect fit—until evidence surfaced that he had jiggered the entire Indiana grading system in order to boost the grade of an Indianapolis charter school operated by a prominent Republican donor. Bennett was forced to resign his Florida post. He’s now one of the many free-agent edupreneurs lurking about the Sheraton Boston, perhaps debating dropping by the afternoon session on “Transparent A–F Grading Systems for the Next Generation of Schools.”

Charter schools are just the latest in a long line of get-rich-quick-schemes in the Sunshine State.

FEE’s Floridian roots do have one undeniable pedagogic function: they make the blatant hucksterism at the heart of the education reform movement much harder to deny. Florida, after all, has played host to more grand swindles than any other state. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, are just the latest in a long line of get-rich-quick-schemes in the Sunshine State. Beneath today’s noble-sounding buzzwords—achievement, excellence, twenty-first-century skills—are the same murky land development deals, Republican politics, and taxpayer money that have become as emblematic of the Florida landscape as alligators and swimming pools.

In Miami, for instance, rapper Pitbull recently opened a brand-new charter school, the Sports Leadership and Management Academy, or SLAM. While Pitbull provides the star power, the school will be run by Academica, a fast-growing charter management chain with close ties to the Florida GOP. State Representative Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, is a former Academica lobbyist, the brother-in-law of Academica’s CEO, and a land-use consultant for an architectural firm that has built a number of Academica schools. At today’s FEE confab, of course, Fresen is here to talk about accountability.

“So much of this is about good old-fashioned profiteering,” Ed Davidson tells me during one of several networking breaks. (Jeb Bush has implored us to maximize our time here by getting plenty of business cards and email addresses.) In a mostly corporate and power-suited crowd, Davidson is clad in head-to-toe camouflage, and I’d approached him hoping he was a Corespiricist—i.e., a member of the a burgeoning movement on the right that views the new Common Core State Standards as an Obama-led plot to keep America stupid. But Davidson is something altogether different: a fiscal watchdog and honest-government advocate who believes in local control of schools. Captain Davidson—he’s a decorated naval combat pilot—decided to run for a seat on the Monroe County School Board, which oversees public schools in the Florida Keys, after the superintendent of schools was convicted of embezzlement.

Davidson is an odd fit for this crowd. He seems to like teachers, for one thing, and he is insistent that whatever promise technology holds, it will never replace the human interaction at the heart of education. He also worries that politicians and investors are far more interested in expanding their business plans than they are in closing down failing charters—a concern shared by critics of the education reform movement (including several speakers at FEE’s conference). “There’s no question that there are some terrific charters out there,” says Davidson. “I’m just not sure that we want an education system that’s based on powerful folks doing favors for other powerful folks.”

This is tricky stuff for FEE. Some of the worst charter schools in the country are part of politically well-connected chains, like White Hat, the Ohio charter management firm run by GOP contributor David Brennan. The online education company K12 Inc., the largest private operator of public schools in the country, with annual revenues approaching $1 billion, has been a major FEE contributor. Not surprisingly, the steady growth of virtual charters is up near the top of the foundation’s reform wish list.

But K12 critics, like hedge funder and reform advocate Whitney Tilson, compare the company to a subprime mortgage lender that, in order to maximize revenue, deliberately targets kids who are likely to fail.[***] Copies of Education Transformation, the new book by K12 CEO and founder Ron Packard, are being handed out for free outside of the Sheraton ballroom, just down the hall from the scholarship window.

Dance of the Lemons

It is a truism of the reform movement that education is the civil rights issue of our time. The FEE crowd tweaks this bumper-sticker sentiment slightly, adding “choice” into the mix. Conservative legal star turned gay-marriage advocate Ted Olson is the featured lunchtime speaker, flown in from California to explain to the crowd that education is the new gay marriage. Or something like that. The story Olson tells is that California’s public schools, golden back in his day, have since sunk into deep decline. He attributes this slide to what he calls the “Dance of the Lemons,” in which bad teachers, who can never be fired thanks to their union protections, are passed from school to school, lowering the test scores of poor minority students and blighting their prospects. Fortunately, he announces, a happy ending is in sight. Olson is part of a high-powered team that has filed a sweeping lawsuit, funded by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, that is aimed at eliminating most workplace protections for teachers.

But like so many of the claims circulating here, Olson’s saga of public education’s decline and prospective recovery in California depends on selected facts and muddled causality. California teachers have had tenure protections since 1912, preceding even Olson’s own golden era of schooling. As for the lemons, are there more of them? Are they dancing faster?

One hulking, unmistakable fact doesn’t enter into Olson’s campfire story of rampaging union privilege devouring the frail educational opportunities of public school kids in California: education funding in the Golden State has fallen off a cliff since the 1970s, and per-pupil funding now ranks among the lowest in the country. At the same time, the rate of poverty among California’s public school students has risen. According to a report released by the Southern Education Foundation hours before Olson’s talk, the majority of students in public schools in the western United States are now low income—a 31 percent increase since 2001.

During the break, I strike up a conversation with Vanessa Tillman. One of the few African Americans in attendance, she’s the president of the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association, part of a delegation of district and union leaders who have traveled to Boston from Florida’s west coast. When I ask her if she feels a little like an alien invader, she makes a face that’s at once bemused and exasperated. Tillman says that what bothers her about what she’s heard here isn’t all of the bad teacher talk or the hostility to unions but the smallness of FEE’s vision. “I understand that a lot of these folks have a business perspective,” she says. “But you never hear them say anything about the bigger picture. Where’s the part where we all work together as a society?”

The man of the hour, Jeb Bush himself, is about to take the stage. Welcome to the National Summit on Education Reform, a.k.a. JebFest 2013.

She’s right. Parents are almost never mentioned here, except as consumers demanding more educational choices. And poverty, to the extent that it impinges upon the reformers’ vision at all, is merely something that great teachers can overcome with high expectations. Tillman’s own story isn’t so different from the against-all-odds tales highlighted by Jeb Bush in his opening speech. One of six kids, she grew up in the Florida Panhandle during the height of battles over busing and desegregation. Her father had a sixth-grade education; her mother, a high school diploma. Yet every one of Tillman’s siblings went on to complete college and to lead successful professional lives. “We own homes and pay taxes,” she says. When Tillman considers many of her own students, she sees odds that are even longer than the ones she faced growing up. “They are the poor children of poor children, and they’ve lost that belief we had that if you just worked hard you could get ahead.”

Vested Interests

Jeb Bush may paint the organization he founded as an insurgent upstart, but in today’s fiercely privatizing education landscape, FEE represents the status quo. For a group that’s less than a decade old, FEE has been remarkably successful at pushing its agenda through statehouses across the country, usually with bipartisan support. (There is even a Biden on hand at the summit: Joe’s brother Frank, who runs—what else?—a for-profit charter school chain in Florida.)

But there are mounting signs of buyer’s remorse as education reform comes to stand for things that people don’t actually like: relentless standardized testing, mass school closures, the constant scolding narrative about what failures we all are. When Rahm Emanuel takes the stage to deliver the final keynote here, he tells the crowd that he’s not an education reformer and that what he’s doing in Chicago isn’t education reform. What he is is up for reelection in a city where the great reform experiment is now more than twenty years old. In the wake of a bitter eight-day strike by Chicago teachers and the closing of more than fifty schools, Emanuel’s approval ratings on education have nosedived. Indeed, many name-brand leaders associated with the reform agenda have met with electoral misfortune lately, with voters in Indiana, Idaho, and Connecticut sending them packing.

My conversation with a new school board member from Jacksonville, Florida, gives me a glimpse into the future of FEE—as well as a sense of possible future moments of reckoning for the larger reform movement of which it’s a part. In 2012 twenty-nine-year-old Jason Fischer became the youngest person ever elected to the Duval County School Board. A former civilian engineer for the navy, Fischer ran for office as a conservative business candidate with the strong support of Jeb Bush. He’s worked for CSX and is currently employed by the ominous-sounding URETEK Holdings. In other words, he is exactly the sort of person I’ve come here expecting to meet.

“Jeb Bush is one of my heroes,” Fischer tells me. I scribble his words down on my notepad, adding an “ugh” for good measure. But our conversation quickly takes an unpredictable turn. Fischer says that he rejects the notion that schools are overrun with bad teachers and that we can essentially fire our way to a higher-achieving future. Of the 8,500 teachers employed by Duval County public schools, roughly 100 have left as a result of newly enacted performance measures, according to Fischer. As for the rest? “Our goal should be to invest in the people we have and help them to be the best professionals they can be,” he says. Mild stuff to be sure, but practically heretical in these circles.

I ask him about some of the other issues that FEE holds dear. What about that perennial reform favorite, merit pay? “I’m not a fan of pitting employees against one another,” says Fischer. “It doesn’t work at a corporation, so I don’t see how it’s going to work in education.” Failing charter schools? Fischer says that there are some in his own city that should be closed down tomorrow. By the time we get to universal pre-K, Fischer is sounding like New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio. About a quarter of the children in Duval County live in poverty; among African American children, the number is closer to a third. “Education is a huge piece of the puzzle, but it’s just one piece,” says Fischer. “There’s a bigger picture we need to consider.”

The privilege of defining that bigger picture, though, has increasingly fallen to the business leaders. They’re the real marquee attractions here. Executives from ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Accenture, and EMC are all joining forces to shake up our schools. Their mantra, neatly conveyed in the title of one FEE session, speaks volumes about the strange cul-de-sac in which education reform now finds itself, trapped by a relentlessly petty, gnat-straining assault on the public sphere masquerading as an epic-heroic vision. High Expectations Make Cents, the conference session proclaims. And nearly everyone here seems to believe it.

[*]Amplify’s ambitious plan to corner the K–12 tablet market recently suffered a serious setback when a North Carolina district suspended use of all fifteen thousand of its tablets due to hardware problems and reports of melting chargers.

[**]Whether Florida did indeed experience an educational miracle while then-Governor Bush was in office is subject to debate. While students did see an increase in test scores, it’s not clear that Bush’s policies were the cause, and his beloved school report-card evaluations, keyed to student test score performance, have been repeatedly revised by the legislature.

[***]Tilson, in turn, is betting that K12 will fail. In a presentation to the Value Investing Congress in September, he announced that K12 stock was his biggest short. A month later, the stock had lost close to half its value.