ECOT has performed reliably on one front—as a cash cow for the businesspeople backing it. ECOT was founded by William Lager, a former office supply company executive with no background in education. (Lager, a member of Bush's Digital Learning Council, declined an interview request.) ECOT receives about $64 million annually in state money, and a sizable chunk of that ends up in the coffers of Lager's other businesses. In 2010, ECOT paid his companies, IQity and Altair Learning Management, a total of $12 million (PDF) for providing curriculum and other services.
Lager has plowed some of his earnings into politics. Since 2001, he has steered nearly $1 million to various candidates in Ohio. He donated about $200,000 last year to key members of the General Assembly, primarily Republicans, and to the Democratic and Republican state parties. In 2009, he gave $10,000 to the GOP in Florida, where his companies also do business with public schools. If Bush ever does run for the White House, Lager will be a good friend to have in a key state.
Jeb isn't the first Bush to take up the education reformer mantle. When George W. Bush ran for Texas governor in 1994, he campaigned on school reform to highlight his "compassionate conservatism." And brother Neil Bush founded an educational software company in 1999 that ultimately raised $23 million from investors, including his parents.
The company, Ignite Learning, sells purple multimedia machines known as Curriculum on Wheels, or COWs. School districts, lobbied heavily by Neil, used No Child Left Behind money to buy the equipment during his brother's administration. In 2006, Barbara Bush donated money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund—with the mandate that it be used to buy Neil's products for several Houston schools that had taken in Katrina evacuees.
Like his brother George, Jeb needed a marquee issue when he made his run for governor in 1994. In that race, his platform included advocating for speedier executions and closing the state education department. At one candidates' forum, an African American woman asked what he'd do for the black community. He famously replied, "Probably nothing."
Carrying just 4 percent of the black vote, Bush lost the race by a percentage point. Soon thereafter, he teamed up with the local Urban League to found the state's first charter school, branding himself as an education reformer. When he ran again in 1998, there was no mention of killing off the ed department. This time he prevailed.
"These folks talk about a free market," says one education expert, "but they couldn't exist without taxpayer dollars."
As governor, Bush focused on a number of controversial education reform measures, including giving public schools letter grades based on students' test scores. In 1999, when the grading system was first put in place, his own charter school received a D. By 2008, the school had earned a C- and was $1 million in debt; the state shut it down.
After leaving the governor's office in 2007, Bush started a foundation devoted to education reform. In 2010, it raised $5.9 million, $1.7 million of which went to a two-day conference for legislators. The confab was partially bankrolled by corporations that would benefit from the policies Bush was advocating. At this year's conference Rupert Murdoch, who sees a big market in online learning (see "Fox in the Schoolhouse"), was the keynote speaker.
Bush's digital-learning initiatives have also drawn support from companies hoping to cash in on the virtual-education boom, including charter school operators, online-curriculum providers, and tech firms like Apple, Dell, Google, Intel, and Microsoft.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Digital Learning Now report reads like an industry wish list. It calls for jettisoning caps on virtual-school enrollment and removing some teacher licensing rules; allowing students to take unlimited virtual classes from for-profit providers; and expanding use of digital textbooks and online testing.
Alex Molnar, the director of publications at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, says these policy prescriptions are part of a corporate-driven agenda to access public education funds. "These folks talk about a free market," he says, "but they couldn't exist without taxpayer dollars. There is a limited audience for this. You have to get policymakers to force people into it."
To that end, you have to get policymakers to buy in—and that's the area where Bush has excelled. Bennet Ratcliff, a political consultant who once produced ads for Bill Clinton and now does PR work for Bush's foundation, says Digital Learning Now is all about "advocating for policies in the states and in districts that would promote digital learning. For instance, it could be talking to boards of education, it could be talking to state chiefs, it could be talking to governors, district [superintendents], legislators." None of this, he hastens to add, constitutes lobbying: "I do need to be very clear about that. This is an advocacy and education effort about digital learning. What we are not doing is lobbying." When I asked him who was actually doing the talking, he replied, "Elves."
The elves scored their first legislative coup in March, when Utah's Legislature passed a bill, based almost entirely on the Digital Learning Now blueprint, that provides more opportunity for high school students to take online courses. A few months earlier, Bush had visited Utah to make the case for virtual schools to state legislators and to address Gov. Gary Herbert's Education Excellence Commission. According to education activist Robyn Bagley, that support was key in engineering the bill's passage. When supporters feared that Herbert might veto it, she says, Bush was on standby to make a governor-to-governor call: "They were there if we needed them." Bush also published an op-ed in the Deseret News congratulating legislators for putting "Utah and its students at the forefront of K-12 digital learning policy in the country."
The governor signed the bill. Several of Bush's Digital Learning Council members will benefit from the new law, including the online education company K12 Inc., which already provides curriculum materials for one virtual school in Utah; its lobbyists, according to Bagley, were also "helpful with the bill."
But Utah was just the start. With an assist from Digital Learning Now, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin passed laws this year allowing online-education companies to access more public funds. Some even require public school students to take online classes in order to graduate. Others are considering similar laws. In July, after Ohio's Republican governor, John Kasich, signed legislation supported by Digital Learning Now, Bush issued a statement praising politicians who'd ensured that "more students in the Buckeye State will have the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential."
When Bush evangelizes about digital learning, he emphasizes the potential for every student to get an "individualized" and "high-quality" education. But many digital-learning products are not actually tailored to individual students or schools—nor are they particularly high quality. Take the lessons offered by K12, which was cofounded by former Education Secretary William Bennett with help from onetime junk-bond king Michael Milken. With 81,000 students using its curriculum in 27 states, K12 has experienced explosive growth. In the past three years, its business has expanded 72 percent; it's predicting $500 million in revenue for fiscal year 2011.
K12's website offers sample lessons, and I worked through a handful for kindergartners and first-graders. The lessons looked like PowerPoint slides. One instructs parents to rustle up crayons and scissors so that "Sarah" can cut out pictures of sheep after being read a poem on the topic. K12 tells parents to ask Sarah things like, "What kinds of animals are in this poem?"