The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

February 15, 2013

Oklahoma education influenced by interest group

(Continued)

TULSA, Okla. — ‘Air cover’

Fair said Barresi makes no secret of her involvement with Chiefs for Change.

“She is a supporter of Jeb Bush’s but she is involved in that group because she strongly believes in sharing best practices with the common goal of improving student achievement,” Fair said.

An email from December 2011 indicates that the Bush foundation was heavily involved with the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s writing of the rules used to implement legislation including the new A-F school report cards, changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act intended to end “social promotion,” and online supplemental learning.

“Based on my work with your team, I don’t anticipate any issues getting approval from your board, but we are happy to provide any kind of air cover — op eds, tweets, letters to the editor, and even expert testimony at the board meeting if you need it,” wrote Mary Laura Bragg, director of state policy implementation at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in an email to Barresi.

Other emails show that Assistant State Superintendent Kerri White sought assistance with Oklahoma’s application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act from Chiefs for Change and the Jeb Bush foundation and Bragg responded with a referral to John Bailey, whom she called, “our federal policy superstar.”

Florida model

Barresi’s office isn’t the only one seeking the input of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

In December, the Tulsa World reported on emails that showed Gov. Mary Fallin’s chief of staff and policy director engaged foundation staffers in phone conferences with members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education in the midst of great controversy over new A-F school report cards.

Asked to respond to the D.C. group’s allegations about foundation special interests, Fallin’s spokesman said the governor’s belief in Oklahoma’s reform initiatives transcends foundation input.

“I don’t have any direct knowledge of corporations or individuals who promote Jeb Bush or his group,” said Alex Weintz. “Our involvement with him is as a fellow governor who knows Gov. Fallin personally. Jeb Bush has a perspective when it comes to education. He believes accountability measures such as A-F work; so does Gov. Fallin. The results in Florida were obviously successful. We hope we can achieve the same kind of results in Oklahoma.”

Weintz said Fallin previously invited Bush to speak to a group of state legislators about initiatives and “we appreciate their support when it came to legislative outreach on that and as a resource at times.”

In late November, Barresi organized a large delegation - 12 state Education Department employees, legislators and several state board of education members — to attend the foundation’s national summit, an annual event, which was held in Washington, D.C.

An agenda for the event lists Barresi as a panelist at a session called “Transforming Education for the Digital Age,” and state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, as a panelist at a session titled “Reaching More Students with Vouchers and Tax-credit Scholarships.”

Fair said travel, hotel accommodations and some meal expenses were covered through “scholarships” from the Jeb Bush Foundation. She estimated state costs for other trip expenses at $1,000.

Another email obtained by In the Public Trust shows the foundation also paid for Barresi and a staff member to visit the Carpe Diem charter school in Arizona in May 2011. Jeb Bush has touted Carpe Diem schools as a digital model of school choice.

As chair of the Oklahoma CareerTech board, Barresi announced in January the panel had hired Robert Sommers, chief executive officer and managing partner of Carpe Diem Learning Systems, as the state’s new CareerTech director.

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