Business School

Should corporate education firms influence state reform policies?

Hanna Skandera's education reform agenda reads like a page from the Foundation for Excellence in Education's playbook.

A nonprofit education reform advocacy group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, FEE has made an industry of advocating for the types of education reforms Skandera, the secretary-designate for the New Mexico Public Education Department, is pushing: teacher evaluations, an A-F school grading system, virtual charter schools, holding kids back if they can't read by third grade.

In fact, Skandera is such an effective ambassador for FEE's reform message that the nonprofit has helped fly her across the nation, and even to London, for board meetings and conferences as vice chairwoman of the FEE-operated Chiefs for Change, "a coalition of state school chiefs and leaders who share a zeal for education reform." And a slew of recently released emails reveals that FEE officials have helped craft education-related bills before they reach the New Mexico Legislature.

The emails—obtained by the nonprofit In the Public Interest through freedom of information requests in several states—show that FEE's close ties to education officials aren't just about advocacy. According to Deputy Communications Director Jacqueline Barreiros, "the majority" of FEE's operational expenses come from "private foundations, nonprofits and philanthropies" such as the Broad Foundation. But FEE also relies on donations from corporations like Apple Inc., Intel Corp. and textbook giant McGraw-Hill to fund its education summits, at which donors can gain access to officials who may be in a position to help them capture a slice of public funding.

FEE's affiliation with one donor is particularly relevant to New Mexico. Connections Academy, a Baltimore, Md.-based for-profit corporation that operates tuition-free, publicly funded virtual charter schools in 22 states, helped sponsor an October 2011 summit in California for which Skandera was listed as a speaker. Although the emails offer no direct evidence of Skandera's meeting with Connections Academy officials, the summit designated certain time slots for Chiefs for Change participants (like Skandera) to meet with corporate sponsors (like Connections). Travel vouchers also show that "Foundation Funds" paid $1,107 to fly state Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Colfax, to the same summit. Three months later, Roch sponsored a bill allocating $1 million for PED to transition to a new teacher evaluation system.

To be sure, meeting with corporate education firms is neither uncommon nor illicit. Often, it can help public officials learn about new and beneficial education programs and products.

But critics worry that establishing close ties between public officials and for-profit education firms can lead to decisions that put those companies' interests over the needs of students.

Last summer, for instance, Connections sought to open a virtual charter school in New Mexico. The Public Education Commission, a nine-member board elected by New Mexico voters, turned it down. But this January, Skandera overturned the PEC's decision. Now, commissioner Jeff Carr says the PEC may vote to challenge Skandera's decision in court.

Behind this legal and political snafu is a very basic question: Are Skandera's reform efforts designed to benefit New Mexico's chronically underperforming students, or cookie-cutter formulas crafted by nonprofits whose donors merely want a piece of PED's $2.56 billion budget pie?

Donald Cohen, the president of In the Public Interest, says the emails show that FEE's relationship with public officials is "influence on steroids," in which officials like Skandera are "staffed and financed by private companies."

"This is clearly an interesting effort and seems a little bit more than the usual lobbying," Cohen tells SFR. "…There's only one reason for a private company to want to meet with [a public] official: That's money."

Skandera's ties to FEE and similar groups date back to early 2011, just after her appointment as PED secretary. (She still hasn't been confirmed by the state Senate.)

On Feb. 9, 2011, Skandera issued a press release naming her advisory team. It included FEE Senior Policy Fellow Christy Hovanetz and John Bailey, then the director of education consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors.

The emails show that Hovanetz had significant influence over education-reform bills in New Mexico—even before Skandera officially named her as an adviser.

On Jan. 17, for instance, Skandera emailed Hovanetz: "Good news! The gentleman who prepared the bill is amenable to all the changes we talked about. Do you want to take a stab at drafting language…? Or, should I send your attachment to our leg[islative] drafters and see what they can do with it?"

"Maybe see what they can do with it first," Hovanetz replied, "and I will revise their language."

On Feb. 22, 2011, Skandera emailed Hovanetz again, seeking clarification on third-grade retention—the policy of holding back any student who can't read by third grade. To Skandera's question about identifying struggling readers before they reach third grade, Hovanetz responded: "Even if they have been identified as a struggling reader we should hold them back regardless of previous identification."

Bailey also helped draft New Mexico education bills—and, in June 2012, he joined FEE's ranks as the executive director of its Digital Learning Now! initiative, which advocates for publicly funded digital education programs such as virtual charter schools.

Digital Learning Now! receives funding from the same for-profit corporations that donate to FEE, including K12—an education contractor that has poured more than $26,000 into New Mexico lawmakers' campaigns, including at least $6,000 to Gov. Susana Martinez and her political action committee, Susana PAC—and Pearson, Connections Academy's parent company.

Locally, New Mexico Connections Academy has requested $2.4 million in state funding, increasing to $14.25 million by its fifth year.

SFR caught Skandera on the phone, but she declined to comment.

"Chiefs for Change is a [sic] internationally recognized organization of state chief officers that are known as leaders when it comes to education," PED spokesman Larry Behrens writes in an email. "So much so that several members, including Secretary Skandera, have been asked to testify before Congress about education reform." (FEE, incidentally, paid her way to Washington.)

Paul Gessing, a board member of New Mexico Connections Academy and president of the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation, says he thinks it's positive to have more schooling options in New Mexico—including Connections Academy, which he says would offer a STEM-oriented curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math). The school's board of directors, he says, would also be able to part with Connections and choose a different contractor if necessary.

"You can call for-profit education providers a special interest," he says, "but you have to acknowledge in the same sentence or same breath that teachers' unions or other lobbyists for the status quo are special-interest groups."

But Viki Harrison, the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, says FEE's involvement in local education policy raises concerns.

"It is unconscionable to think that our public education system is being manipulated by companies that will monetarily benefit from legislation pursued in New Mexico," Harrison writes in an email to SFR. "Using industry dollars to pay for trips for our government officials leaves constituents in the dark about who is really footing the bills for legislation passed in our state."

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