Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush plans to travel to Belden, Miss., next month to help raise money for the state's Republican nominee for governor, Tate Reeves, at a high-dollar luncheon. Bush, no stranger to high-dollar politics in Mississippi, leads an organization that spent more than $145,000 lobbying Mississippi lawmakers between 2013 and 2019 in support of his "education reform" pet policy agenda, which includes charter schools and private-school vouchers.
Bush will headline the fundraiser in Belden, which is about 10 minutes from Tupelo, Miss., on Oct. 1. The Jackson Free Press obtained an invitation showing that the fundraiser will take place at the home of HomeStretch Furniture co-founder Gentry Long and his wife, Brandi. Attendees can have lunch starting at $500 per couple. The invitation also offers couples the opportunity to attend as co-hosts for $1,000 or as hosts for $2,500.
The help from Bush comes after Reeves, Mississippi's lieutenant governor who also serves as the president of the State Senate, spent the past few years working on one of Bush's pet projects—education "reform." That euphemistic phrases typically means bringing charter schools to the state and implementing a voucher program to divert public funds to send some children to private schools.
Bush's Lobbying Org: 'Excellence in Education'
When Bush visited Mississippi and spoke to lawmakers in 2012 as "school choice" efforts were gaining steam in the Legislature, he talked about how Florida had done some of those things, and urged them to support charter schools.
"People think that charter schools don't work, and they may not work in some places," Bush told Mississippi lawmakers when he visited the state in 2012—just as "school choice" efforts were gaining steam in the Legislature. "Normally (with) good charter-school laws, when (schools) don't work, you get to close them. Failed schools shouldn't exist, period. They should be closed so better alternatives can come."
Bush urged them to follow his example in Florida, where he signed several "choice" bills into law as governor in the early 2000s.
The year after Bush's visit, at Reeves' urging, Mississippi lawmakers passed a law allowing charter schools to open in the state. Unlike other states where the role is often mostly ceremonial, the lieutenant governor presides as president of the Mississippi Senate, where he or she has tremendous power to champion or kill legislation. Six schools have opened since then, with more on the way. Bush's Tallahasee-based national organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, also began operating in the state that year. In 2014, Excellence spent $12,274.03 lobbying lawmakers. Bush's organization, which he founded in 2008, is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, commonly known as ALEC, which helps state legislators in Mississippi and across the country write often corporate-friendly legislation.
In 2015, Excellence nearly tripled its lobbying efforts in Jackson to $30,736.67. In April of that year, just two months before launching an unsuccessful bid for president, Bush joined current Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant at a bill signing ceremony for the Equal Opportunity for Students With Special Needs Act. The law created a voucher program, allowing parents of select students to get up to $6,500 a year to pay for tuition to send a special-needs child to a private school—ostensibly because a public school may not provide the amenities their need requires.
"Today, Mississippi took bold action to expand parental choice and expand opportunities for students with special needs," Bush said at the 2015 signing. "Thanks to the strong leadership of Governor Bryant and state legislators, and the passionate advocacy of parents across the state, Mississippi will be a national leader in helping students with unique learning abilities achieve their God-given potential."
The push for private vouchers did not stop there, though. While proponents first introduced vouchers as a program for special-needs children—even though much of that money is now sending children to schools without special needs programs—they immediately began work on pushing to expand it.
Bush's organization spent $94,589 lobbying Mississippi lawmakers in 2016 and 2017. At the same time, another pro-voucher lobbying group, Empower Mississippi, was focusing its efforts on then-Mississippi House Education Chairman John Moore. Just before the start of the 2018 session, though, Moore resigned amid an investigation into sexual-harassment allegations.
The new House Education Committee Chairman, Richard Bennett, has proven less amenable to lobbying efforts from the "school choice" lobby. After Bennett's ascendence, Excellence, which had hired four lobbyists in late 2017 for the 2018 session, drastically cut its lobbying efforts, paying only one lobbyist that year $5,260.11. That dropped further to $2,689.64 in 2019.
Reeves Pushed Through $3 Million Voucher Expansion
Earlier this year, Bennett helped kill renewed efforts to increase funding for and expand the voucher program.
After that bill died, though, Reeves and other Republican leaders took matters into their own hands, secretly tacking a $3 million funding increase for private-school vouchers onto an unrelated bill to fund state government. Without letting lawmakers know about the voucher funds, Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn gave them the updated bill just minutes before asking them to vote on it.
Only after nearly unanimously passing the appropriations bill did senators and House members discover the trickery. Legislative leaders quashed an attempted rebellion, after enraged Republicans and Democrats revolted and tried to change their votes.
Two days after the end of the session, Empower Mississippi President Grant Callen, also a lobbyist, gave Reeves and Gunn gifts. Lobbying reports lists a $64.14 "After Session Thank You" gift from Callen to Reeves, and also a $100 "After Session Thank You" to Gunn.
Hood: No 'Public School Dollars for Private Schools'
In November, Reeves will go head-to-head with the Democratic nominee for governor, current Attorney General Jim Hood. Hood plans to roll out his education plans at a Greenville, Miss., elementary school at 3:30 p.m. today.
Tate Reeves pushed typical conservative buttons on his way to primary victory. Tammy Pearson said he spent too much time "relying on his name-dropping of Trump," adding, "This is a state election, not a national election. This is Mississippi."
Earlier this year, in a questionnaire for The Parents' Campaign, a pro-public education lobbying group that opposes vouchers and charters, Hood said that he would oppose vouchers as governor.
"Mississippi's public schools are severely underfunded, and we rank near the bottom in per pupil spending on education. I don't think we should take taxpayer dollars away from our public schools and put them into the hands of private organizations that aren't held to the same accountability standards as our public schools," Hood said. "Additionally, many of the private institutions receiving these funds hire public school educators because they don't have the staff certified to offer needed services. Mississippi shouldn't give away public school dollars for private schools to turn around and hire public school teachers that would otherwise provide these services."
Voters will choose among candidates for statewide offices, including governor and lieutenant governor, in the general election on Nov. 6, 2019. Voters must register 30 days before an election to be eligible to vote.
More information on voting, voter registration and voter ID is available on the secretary of state's website at sos.ms.gov.
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected]. Read more about statewide elections at jacksonfreepress.com/2019elections.