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Jeb Bush's education nonprofit rakes in cash

Conservative foundations, charter school backers fill coffers of potential 2016 contender's nonprofit

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As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush promotes his new book about immigration, some politicos are suggesting the notable Republican’s education reform-oriented nonprofit group is what’s truly worth watching, as it could serve as an early springboard toward a 2016 presidential bid.

Undoubtedly, the coffers of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education — which favors reforms such as ending tenure for teachers, increasing school choice and expanding digital learning — have swelled in recent years, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.

Bush launched the Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2007. That year, it raised about $244,000, according to an annual report it filed with the Internal Revenue Service. By 2009, its revenue grew to $2.8 million. And in 2011, the most recent year for which records are available, it hauled in nearly $8.5 million.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s mission is to “ignite a movement of reform to transform American education.” It touts itself as a “hands-on, how-to organization that provides model legislation, rule-making expertise, implementation strategies and public outreach,” according to its website. It has also hosted conferences for legislators and state officials.

Records indicate that its donors include an array of conservative-leaning foundations and supporters of charter schools.

According to the Foundation Center, the following organizations supported Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education in 2011:

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $1 million
  • The Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, $500,000
  • The Robertson Foundation, $500,000
  • The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $290,000
  • The Carnegie Corporation of New York, $150,000, specifically for a “multi-year initiative to transform education using technology” *
  • The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, $50,000
  • The William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, $25,000
  • The Hertog Foundation, $25,000
  • The Cobb Family Foundation, $15,000

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major supporter of charter schools. During Washington state’s 2012 ballot measure fight to expand public charter schools, Bill and Melinda Gates personally gave $3.15 million to the committee pushing for the proposal, records show.

The Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has also been a major financial backer of education reformers. Michael Grebe, the foundation’s president and chief executive officer, also sits on the board of the Colorado-based Charter School Growth Fund.

So, too, has the Robertson Foundation, which was established by hedge fund pioneer Julian Robertson, who personally donated $2.25 million to Restore Our Future, the main super PAC supporting Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential run, during the 2012 election cycle. His son Spencer Robertson runs a charter school in New York City.

2011 was not only the Bush’s nonprofit biggest financial year on record, but it also marked the group’s first reported foray into lobbying. It told the IRS it spent $2,000 on lobbying in 2011.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s lawmaker-focused conferences have recently drawn scrutiny, and the lobbying firm headed by the group’s executive director withdraw its official registration earlier this week, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting noted.

When asked by CBS about a potential presidential run earlier this week, Bush said that he is “not ruling it out," adding that he’s “decided not to think about it for a while.”

If Bush was to seek the presidency, he could not transfer money raised through his nonprofit to any political committee he formed. But big-dollar donors cultivated through his nonprofit could separately be tapped as contributors or fundraisers.

Recent presidential candidates including Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum operated nonprofit organizations prior to launching their campaigns.

Paul Abowd contributed to this report.

* The Carnegie Corporation of New York is a past funder of the Center for Public Integrity and has provided general support and some additional project funding for the Center’s journalistic work.