Foundation for Florida’s Future
- Location: Tallahassee, FL
- Tax-Exempt Status: 501(c)(4)
- EIN: 20-3229141
- Website: http://www.foundationforfloridasfuture.org/
In October 2014, FFF merged and became part of its sister organization, Excellence in Education.
The Foundation for Florida’s Future (FFF) was founded in 1995 by Jeb Bush following his failed 1994 run for Florida’s governorship. Although it ostensibly sought to promote Bush’s conservative agenda for Florida’s state government, its real purpose was “to keep his name in the media and his campaign team together for a second run in 1998.” As the St. Petersburg Times reported, “Running the foundation allowed Bush to keep his public profile high… and cultivate a vibrant state and national network of financial backers focused on helping the Republican make a comeback…”
Since his time as governor ended, FFF has focused on promoting Bush’s efforts towards education privatization, alongside its sister organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE).
In Bush’s second attempt at securing Florida’s Governor’s mansion, the foundation became an issue because “Bush refused to voluntarily reveal who was giving money to it.” Although the foundation raised more than $1.7 million in 1995 and 1996, when Bush finally released donor information it was intentionally cryptic: the “highest category” was “those who gave at least $5,000,” which included 69% of all donors. And Bush “did not list the donors’ occupations or hometowns and refuse[d] to be specific about who gave what.” As a point of comparison, when Bush released a spate of emails in the build-up for his run for President, he carelessly made public 13,000 Social Security Numbers, constituent addresses, phone numbers, and personal email addresses.
Of the donors to FFF preceding his 1998 run, the St. Petersburg Times concluded “nearly all… [had] an interest in the laws and public policies set by the Florida Legislature and the governor” including sugar companies, restaurant chains, cigarette companies, telecommunications companies, and the automobile industry. The St. Petersburg Times goes on to say, “When Bush left the foundation in May 1997 to launch his second campaign for governor… many of the foundation’s largest contributors followed, channeling their giving to the state GOP or Bush’s campaign.”
During Bush’s governorship, FFF merged with the James Madison Institute, Florida’s State Policy Network affiliate. The merger was conducted with Bush’s blessing:
“This merger took place only weeks after Jeb became Governor and he expressed his endorsement of the merger. ‘The Foundation and JMI have worked together for years to promote sound public policy in Florida,’ he said. ‘I am proud of what both of these groups have accomplished and know that by combining staff and resources, the new organization will have an even greater impact throughout the state.’”
The joint enterprise spent significant resources promoting both the governor and his agenda, and JMI-FFF employees received several appointments from Bush to positions in Florida’s government. For an analysis of JMI-FFF’s activity during Bush’s governorship, visit Conservative Transparency’s James Madison Institute biography.
As his time as Governor was coming to an end, JMI released the FFF name and Bush “quietly incorporated” both the Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Foundation for Florida’s Future Action Fund on July 13, 2005, according to the Palm Beach Post and the St. Petersburg Times. Bush told reporters at the time that the new version of FFF would focus narrowly on education.
Sure enough, alongside FEE, FFF has emerged as a strident voice in favor of vouchers, charter schools, and other versions of education privatization. The organizations function as partners with distinct areas of influence: FFF focuses on school privatization in Florida, while FEE focuses outside the state. In its mission, FFF has sometimes skirted or operated in the grey areas of Florida’s ethics laws.
A report (since deleted, but available elsewhere) from the Tampa Tribune noted that FFF took corporate donations from companies that would benefit from contracts from the state’s Department of Education, and invited both those corporate donors and Florida lawmakers and DOE officials to its education “summits.” The report noted that “in some cases, [the government officials’] flights, hotel stays, meals and incidentals were paid for with money that came partly from the foundation’s corporate donors.” This practice is typically banned, but FFF avoided the ban thanks to its close relationship with FEE. Former Bush staffer Patricia Levesque served as director of both organizations, but was registered as a lobbyist solely for FEE. As a result, the ban on lobbyists paying for lawmakers’ expenses was avoided, because FFF, not FEE, paid for those expenses. The report noted that one lawmaker who reported the reimbursements had the trip signed off by the state House counsel: George Levesque, Patricia’s husband.
As NPR reported, “Critics say [Bush] is attempting to privatize public education. They point out his ties to companies that profit from education contracts.” Another example is Charter Schools USA an FFF/FEE donor which would benefit from FFF’s advocacy for a “parent trigger” law, which would provide a way convert local schools into charter schools.
But outside of serving as a facilitator for corporate interests seeking lucrative government contracts, the FFF has pushed an agenda that includes “outcome-based funding” and “school choice” Although FFF and FEE claim universally positive results from these reforms, Florida has recently taken steps to scale back from Bush’s vision. The Florida house unanimously passed a bill in March of 2015 which would “reduce how much of a teacher’s evaluation is tied to student performance” on standardized tests, as well as eliminating several previously-mandated standardized tests.
The FFF praised the House vote, but CBS Miami saw through that: “Even as former Gov. Jeb Bush bases a potential presidential candidacy on his work ushering in more accountability for Florida’s schools, Republicans in the Legislature are looking to roll back the testing regime that Bush helped promote during and after his time in office.” Even Bush’s one-time protege, Sen. Marco Rubio criticized Florida’s excessive testing regime in his own run-up to a presidential bid. The same article quoted Bush defending the testing regime at an FFF summit in February.
In another example, NPR reveals that after the Foundation for Florida’s Future spearheaded a push for “the state board of education to raise passing scores on the state reading test,” the percent of students passing the test plummeted from 81 percent to 27 percent, and the state board of education “was forced to call an emergency meeting to lower the passing score.” Afterwards, “the Foundation for Florida’s Future helped the state deal with the public relations campaign in response.”
As noted, both FEE and FFF are headed by former Bush staffer Levesque, and, according to tax documents, both outsource “management services” to Meridian Strategies, which is owned by… Patricia Levesque. In 2013, Levesque made $204,022 in compensation from FEE, $103,000 in compensation from FFF, and an additional $66,000 combined was paid to Meridian Strategies by both organizations. Several other Bush administration alumni or allies serve on FFF’s board, including Brian Yablonski, Toni Jennings (Bush’s original choice for Lieutenant Governor in 1998), Alan Levine, Linda Taylor, and Raquel Rodriguez, as do major Bush donors Al Hoffman and Dr. Zachariah P. Zachariah.