Exposing Jeb Bush's Promotion of Walmart Family's Monster Private Schools Initiative

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is likely to throw his hat into the presidential ring, vying to become the third Bush to lead the country. As he preps his bid, one area that may come under greater scrutiny is his educational foundation, the Foundation for Excellence in Education. FEE has been an outlet for right-wing education ideas, including Jeb Bush's view that religious schools should receive taxpayer funding.

Few have believed that since stepping down as Florida governor in 2007 that Bush would not return to public office at some point. Because of that, it's important to look at donors to FEE as paying for not just the activities of the foundation but also possibly seeking to gain influence with a future presidential candidate.

Over the past few years, the Walton Family Foundation made large payments to FEE. In 2011, the Walton group gave over $1.5 million to Bush's group; in 2012, it gave $1 million; in 2013, they were in the second-largest group of donors to Bush's organization, alongside News Corporation, and in 2014 they were in the highest tier, giving over a million dollars.

The Walton Family Foundation spends heavily on promoting the same sort of ideas FEE does: school privatization, high-stakes testing and a dismantling of the traditional public school system. This alone could explain why the Waltons are among the Bush foundation's top backers. But there may be additional, more specific reasons. In 2014, as the Walton Foundation returned to the top tier of FEE's donors, it was also spending over $20 million in direct investments in education grants, largely at private and charter schools or organizations that support those schools.

One of those grants went to the Cristo Rey Network, into which Walton invested $375,000 in 2014. Cristo Rey runs 28 private Catholic high schools in urban areas, with more being developed around the country. The school network is known for running a corporate work-study program where students go one day a week to work in a professional business, such as a law firm, bank or hospital, to help fund the majority of their tuition.

Whatever the merits of Cristo Rey's schools, they represent only a tiny sliver of nationwide students, enrolling only 9,000 kids during 2014. Yet when Jeb Bush wrote a National Review op-ed that same year, he made sure to tout the school's achievements and even advocated that taxpayer money go to the network, despite the fact that it is explicitly Catholic and private:

"Students at the network of Cristo Rey high schools work one day a week in businesses and corporate offices, helping pay for their education while learning valuable job skills. We must fundamentally rethink how we define public education, paying for results wherever they occur rather than paying a single provider regardless of results. The achievement of children should trump all other considerations. If we could use a voucher or tax-credit scholarship to send a child to Cristo Rey, where a much higher percent of graduates go to college than in traditional public schools, why would we not do that?"

Bush's comparisons between Cristo Rey, a highly selective religious private school network that has only 9,000 students, to the public schools nationwide that have to take in everyone and have an enrollment of nearly 50 million students, is pretty poor methodology.

But Bush may not have zeroed in on the same school network the Waltons decided to fund by accident. The web of donors that underwrite Bush's foundation may just be getting what they paid for.


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