BY Kathleen McGrory – Herald/Times Tallahasse Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — When Sen. David Simmons needed his colleagues’ support on the education budget last week, he dropped a powerful name on the Senate floor.
“I had a conversation last week with former Gov. Jeb Bush in which we discussed this and his support of it,” Simmons said of the provision to spend $119 million on reading programs at low-income schools.
The name comes up more than you might think. The former governor, who served from 1999 to 2007, still plays a significant role in shaping state education policy.
This session, Bush and his nonprofit organization, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, have helped to fast-track a stream of legislation that could reset the education equation in Florida. The bills, moving steadily through both the House and Senate, could gradually shift the financial and competitive advantage away from traditional public schools to private schools and charter schools, which are often managed by for-profit companies. Other proposals push virtual-learning initiatives.
The foundation says it supports high standards and accountability for all schools: public, charter, private and virtual included. Its supporters say the efforts will lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement – and make the Sunshine State a national leader in education reform.
“It is about equalization,” said Sen. Stephen Wise, the Senate Education Committee chairman and a supporter of the foundation’s agenda. “We need to challenge the status quo so that parents and children have choices.”
Critics, on the other hand, see targeted strikes meant to chip away at Florida’s traditional public schools by diverting more tax dollars to private corporations through voucher programs and charter schools.
“There is an attack on public education as we know it,” said Rep. Dwight Bullard, of Miami, the ranking House Democrat on education issues. “Corporations are looking at it as an opportunity to siphon off dollars.”
There is little debate over the influence Bush and the foundation have had in driving the agenda.
“They have huge sway in the Legislature, in part because of Jeb Bush and in part because they are almost the only game in town,” said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.
Foundation spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said it is no secret that Bush stays involved in public policy. The foundation releases a legislative agenda annually – and follows it through the state Legislature and Board of Education.
“He believes success is never final, so reform is never finished,” she said.
Bush declined requests to be interviewed for this report.
Since its creation in 1994, the foundation has amassed money and influence, developing close ties to conservative think tanks, including the James Madison Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. At the end of 2010, the organization had nearly $1 million in assets, the most recent records show. Emhof said the money is used “to support the work of the foundation, which is to keep education in a Florida a model for the nation.”
Among its legislative priorities this year:
• A bill that would expand the statewide tax credit cap, enabling more children from low-income families to earn vouchers to attend private schools.
• A controversial bill known as the “parent trigger” that would allow parents to demand sweeping changes at low-performing schools. In some cases, parents could petition to have the school converted into a charter.
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/02/27/2664738/jeb-bush-foundation-helps-shape.html#storylink=cpy