Putting Education Reform To The Test

Jeb Bush Taking Florida Education Ideas Nationwide

Joe Raedle / Getty News Images

President Obama praised former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's education leadership at a Miami school last year. Nationally, both Republicans and Democrats are listening to Bush's education ideas.

Indiana education superintendent Tony Bennett was new to office and looking to make dramatic changes to his state’s schools. The biggest? Require third graders pass a state reading test or get held back.

But the state lawmakers were hesitant.

So Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels, both Republican, called in some help: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He pioneered the third grade reading requirement a decade ago.

“Jeb Bush has…a big mind and a big heart for education reform,” Bennett said. “I believed in my heart that he had a great blueprint.”

Bush helped convince lawmakers to approve the plan. For the first time this year, Indiana third graders must pass a reading test to advance to fourth grade.

That’s just one example of Bush’s continuing influence in education, even though he no longer holds public office.

Here’s another big one: Bush wrote the foreword to Mitt Romney’s education plan. Bush’s ideas serve as the basis for much of Romney’s plan. Romney even thanked Bush by name in his speech outlining the plan.

And it’s not just Republicans heaping on the praise. President Obama lauded Bush’s education leadership during a trip to a Miami school last year.

But as his influence has grown, many also blame Bush for shortcomings in the national effort to overhaul U.S. schools.

In Texas, Florida and other states, local school boards are revolting against standardized tests — the backbone of Bush’s data-driven student measurement.

Critics say he’s attempting to privatize public education, They point out his ties to companies that profit from education contracts.

Some superintendents and school board leaders say Bush is moving too fast. They say his non-profit, The Foundation for Florida’s Future, has pushed too hard to raise testing standards.

But those criticisms don’t faze Bennett, He’s seen Florida’s young students post improving scores on national tests — especially black and Hispanic students.

Bush helped Bennett and other like-minded education superintendents launch Chiefs for Change. It advocates for many of Bush’s policies:

  1. Setting high standards for students
  2. Holding teachers and schools accountable
  3. Expanding both public and private school choices.

Bush hasn’t held office for more than five years. But when Bush is talking about schools, Bennett said, he has as much clout as ever.

“Jeb Bush in my opinion may very well be the leading voice in the United States on education reform,” he said.


Mike Coppola / Getty Images Entertainment

Jeb Bush with his wife, Columba.

It isn’t complicated to get Jeb Bush’s help if you need it: Just e-mail him.

Bush said he’s willing to travel anywhere and talk to anyone to build support for these ideas.

“We’ve developed a network, we’re part of a network of reform around the country,” Bush said. “Florida’s gains as it relates to reading and math…have become pretty well-known, and so people seek us out. They know we’re engaged in this.”

Bennett knew he needed help in Indiana. Daniels had worked as budget director for former President George W. Bush, and reached out to his brother, Jeb.

“We brought him in to speak to our legislators…and I would tell you that we were very glad that he accepted the invitation,” Bennett said.

Thanks in part to Bush’s intervention, Indiana lawmakers approved the law. More than 11,700 Indiana third graders — 16 percent – failed the third grade reading test, according to results released earlier this month.

Though the third grade reading requirement is now well-established in Florida, the first results in 2003 caused an uproar. More than 30 percent of Florida’s third graders were at risk of being held back.

“It was a pretty traumatic time,” Bush said. “And what happened was the system changed. It really did require that you teach children differently so that they could learn how to read.”

Within two years the number of third graders at risk of being held back was cut in half. The rate remained constant until this year, when the state raised the requirements to pass.

And Florida’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have improved faster than the national average.

Since the state approved the third grade reading requirement in 2002, fourth grade NAEP reading scores have increased by 11 points — the equivalent of a year’s worth of improvement. Florida scores now exceed the national average.

Using these results as his sales pitch, Bush has traveled to Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and elsewhere to push the third grade reading requirement and other ideas.


John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Orlando moms and neighbors Kathleen Oropeza, Christine Bramuchi and Linda Kobert founded Fund Education Now.

Bush said the results justify the disruption.

“This experience leads me to suggest, look, be tough, but also put resources into the classrooms to allow teachers to teach different strategies to assure students learn,” Bush said.

“The idea of reform is not to be harsh or to hurt people,” he added. “It is to assure that kids that are on one track that dooms them for failure for the rest of their life get a chance to be able to dream big dreams and have the capacity to fulfill them.”

Bush views his policies as tough love. But Orlando’s Linda Kobert has another name for it: Jebucation.

Kobert founded the non-profit group Fund Education Now with her neighbors, Christine Bramuchi and Kathleen Oropeza.

The moms say they are organizing the French Resistance against Bush’s policies in his home state through e-mail and social media such as Twitter.

They cite research from Arizona State University and others which shows students who are held back are more likely to drop out of school.

The moms argue Bush’s policies have created the impression that Florida schools are failing. The goal is to reduce public funding for schools and increase the number of private companies operating schools and providing online classes, curriculum, books and other services, they said.

They note that former Bush colleagues are now spread throughout the education world. Brother Neil founded an online education company, Ignite! Learning.

Former deputies run large charter school companies, sit on Florida’s board of education and work for the federal department of education.

Bush is using the network and political muscle he developed while governor to push Florida lawmakers to try new ideas. Once tested in Florida, the ideas are shipped to other states.

“If it’s your playground and you have a chance to play in it, why not?” Oropeza said. So that’s what he’s doing.

“The problem is he’s using Florida as a Petri dish.”


Even in Florida, where lawmakers still invoke his name often in the state Capitol, the French Resistance is encouraging dissent in the Legislative ranks.

Exhibit number one: the parent trigger bill.

Joe Raedle / Getty News Images

Parents and students protest outside then-Gov. Jeb Bush's Miami office in this 2003 photo.

It would allow a majority of parents in failing schools to vote to choose how to restructure their child’s school.

The options included converting the school into a charter schools. Fund Education Now was appalled that a publicly funded school and its facilities could be turned over to a privately run charter management firm.

“We were spectators for a long time ourselves,” Bramuchi said, “but when it affected our own personal children, that’s we got involved and then saw the bigger picture.”

The moms ducked chores, arranged child care and spent hours driving to hearings on the parent trigger bill in Tallahassee this winter.

The bill was supported by the Foundation for Florida’s Future and Republican legislative leadership.

Bramuchi said they met one-on-one with lawmakers, and like-minded people hounded their offices with e-mails and phone calls.

“We would walk into these senators’ offices and listen to their aides go through voicemail after voicemail” from Florida parents opposed to the bill, Bramuchi said. “And the aides would frequently tell us ‘Can you just make them stop calling?’”

The parent trigger bill came down to the final day of the legislative session. Both sides were calling lawmakers to gather the needed votes.

When the bill failed by one vote you could hear a gasp from the Senate chambers.

Bush personally called one lawmaker to try to flip his vote – and failed.

The Orlando moms believe the parent trigger defeat signals a Bush backlash in Florida.

More recently, Bush and the Foundation for Florida’s Future were criticized for pushing the state board to education to raise passing scores on the state reading test.

When the percentage of fourth grade students passing the test plunged to 27 percent from 81 percent, the state board of education was forced to call an emergency meeting to lower the passing score.

E-mails show the Foundation for Florida’s Future helped the state deal with the public relations campaign in response, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel.

Bush is not deterred.

One lawmaker upset at how his bill had been treated cast the decisive parent trigger vote against as a small measure of payback, Bush said. He says the parent trigger will be back in 2013.

“Those kinds of things scare people, I guess, so maybe I’m criticized for that,” he said.

“I don’t get a lot of direct criticism though – maybe I’m not watching. And frankly, I don’t really care either.”

Bush says it’s an exciting time for education, with both Democrats and Republicans backing many of the concepts he supports. He says it’s because those ideas are showing results.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Christine Bramuchi’s name.


  • Bruno_Behrend

    The founders of “Fund Education Now” are clearly not interested in funding education. They merely want to fund an education bureaucracy. The nation is literally wasting away billions funding the salaries of “administration and support” jobs that don’t connect a single neuron in a child’s head.

    Any nation that educates based upon zip codes is engaging in a morally illegitimate practice that amounts to educational apartheid, hurting the poor most of all, while suburban parents fund an army of needless administrators.

    Bush, for all his reformer credentials, doesn’t go far enough. Why do failed monstrosities like large school districts even exist? Why do we need the school district as an entity at all? Why not simply fund the child directly, and allow for the rapid creation of 100s of different options for learning?

    We are bothering to attempt reforms of a corrupt, un-reformable, 19th-century education model when the content of centuries of progress can be delivered over 21st century infrastructure.

    If the whole edifice of this awful legacy system fell to rubble tomorrow, we would be insane to attempt to rebuild it as is. Let us therefore accelerate the dismantlement of the whole mess. And fast.

    • Dropouts

      Don’t be such a smart ALEC, Bruno.

      • Bruno_Behrend

        ALEC is tiny compared to the financial clout that supports our awful education system. Look at the lobbying and cash funding the campaigns of both parties. The administrator lobbies, the bond lobbies, the debt lobby, and yes the unions.

        The fact is that more and more people are getting hip to the spending scam, so ALEC or no, times are fortunately changing.

        • BSherman

          The difference is that union members are the ones actually on the ground that are doing the hard work. They know the problems and the solutions. But, no one wants to listen to them. The others are just leeches and parasites trying to make a quick buck with no relevant expertise in education.

    • Shoes2860

      what a load of nonsense. Public schools are not failing. Our government is failing Public education. Jebucation along with others who will benefit financially will surely be the downfall of our children. By the way, the group, Fund Eduation Now, is soley funded by Florida parents, run by Florida parents, and supported by Florida parents for Floridas children.

      • Bruno_Behrend

        Groups that support the education status quo, and argue for more money for the failed district system are often front groups for the same spending interests that support more spending.

        It’s time to stop funding bureaucracies, no matter who organizes for supporting them.

        • BSherman

          So eliminate public schools entirely?

  • The story needs to be updated to correct grammatical and punctuation errors, as well.  dOH!

  • Patty De Biase

    Why  not  fund  education  properly in Florida?  How  can we   by 50th in   education  funding? Our   children  should be the  highest interest group.

    • Bruno_Behrend

      We fund education more than any other nation, and have less to show for it. Buying big pensions for scads of needless administration isn’t “funding education,” it’s funding jobs for public employees.

      If you are serious about helping children, fund children, not counter-productive bureaucrats.

      • BSherman

        Not true. The top performing countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on their education. Singapore for example spends 20% of the government budget on education.

  • CSket

    As a parent and not one of the three above I am finding only the truth on FundEducationNow.org.  No one is paid, they are all dedicated volunteers, like myself and we only care about our communities and children.  Can we say the same about Jeb and the gang who are making a profit?  Why else would Jeb hop across the country? 

    I volunteer with the students who CAN read and CAN write.  I hear them cry when they are presented with 2 and sometimes 3 correct answers and are so stressed out because they have to select the one that meets the benchmarks. 

    Forget about additional learning, my gifted son struggles with the testing and based on national diagnostic testing has a very high reading and math concepts level.  The tests are created to trick students.  Also, ask the FLDOE about the questions that are above the benchmarks, not even taught in the student’s grade level.  How can that not confuse or upset a student who has already been told pass this test or fail? 

    Before any of us bash these mothers or the children ask yourselves how you would perform on a test designed to trick you at age 9?  Shame on our country for moving forward on doctored test results. 

    One final note, ask Jeb what he did with the lower 25% of students to show false gains in his FCAT and standards.  He will gladly share with you that they have vouchers and no longer have to suffer through the FCAT.  Go to the following site to hear it from JEB BUSH himself:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tY7Ujgz_Hvc&feature=youtu.be

    • Bruno_Behrend

      From the site…”
      Fund Education Now.org was founded by parents and joined by principals, administrators, teachers and concerned community members”

      Translated… the kind of people who measure success by the amount of money spent on principals, administrators, teachers, and easily led community members who love to spend other people’s money while controlling education through wasteful districts, silly mandates, and union work rules.

      As for the issues you raise, it is my view that you should put your child in the kind of school that suits them best according to parent/family wishes. I don’t believe in harsh FCAT stats any more than I support the dumbed-down idiot curriculum of the 80s and 90s.

      I believe in parental choice, and virtually every intellectually honest person should see that it the best way to deliver education to a diverse nation of 310 million.

      Y’all need to stop fawning over this overpriced, feather-bedded, 19th-century jobs program and get serious about how to educate a nation of children.

      • CSket


        I agree with you 100% we have it wrong and Millions of dollars are being wasted EVERY year by our State Leaders in Tallahassee.  Many tests exsist that would greatly benefit our children.  Pearson was selected in a single bid contract by Gov. Bush.  Pearson was paid about $400 million in 2011 from the Stae of Florida to create new testing?  What? New testing?  Why not have all high school students take the ACT/SAT (testing that actually matters to their future).  Private schools in the state use Norm Referenced test, IOWA and the PSAT to compare and diagnose where their children are performing.  I am a republican and I hate the waste that I see in Florida for the testing and creation of more tests. 

        I looked into the money spent by Pearson, charter schools and virtual schools in the state of Florida and the numbers are alarming, millions of dollars.  This is wrong.  I understand your anger because I feel it daily when I see my children learning from worksheets with the sunshine logo designed to “pass the test”.  Thankfully, I do exercise School Choice and parents at my scchool contribute about $150,000 – $200,000 each year to have art, dance, music, historical drama…  An education system that teaches to the whole child.  We choice to a magnet school for the Arts and Technology and we suppliment the school.  We watch every dime spent in the school.  We do not have many of the extras that other schools have like a guidance department (our principal handles that area), one person works in the front office.  

        Every student in our school experiences public speaking before 3rd grade and continues.  Students have many jobs around the campus (that is old and in a less than desirable area).  Understand there are parents who get it and are willing to buy in to the right kind of education for kids.  I have taken the time to speak to students who have graduated from High School and they said the principles they learned in elementary school carried them into college or the workforce today.  Our school is 50% free and reduced lunch, 50% of our students live in poverty, yet we still raise $150,000- $200,000 per year as parents.  That should tell you something about our commitment to our children’s education and I don’t know one parent who would throw good money after bad money. 

        Our schools are broken and the state isn’t trying to fix them they are trying to run them or test them into complete failure.

        • Bruno_Behrend

          I call the American school system the “Government Education Complex,” and I describe that as the powerful financial interests (public and private) that skim billions off of the system.

          We all know unions are part of this cartel, but we ignore the fact that textbook companies, bond dealers, bus companies, and even taxi companies (see Illinois) are also feeding off of the system.

          Your point seems to be that Pearson is now one of these trough feeders as well, using ‘reforms’ to enrich itself. If this is the case, I am with you. I am not involved in education reform to replace one set of rapacious interests with another. That said, we need to compare apples to apples, and look at the spending on ETS and other service providers.

          One reform that I’ve argued for is the separation of testing and teaching. You can’t have a school district/school police itself. There are too many foxes in the hen house.

          Again, this is why I am for universal, unrestricted vouchers. It is the ONLY reform the ends the hegemony of the “gov ed complex.”

          As for testing, if competition is good for schools and teachers, (and it is), then it is good for testing.

  • Guest

    I am not a fan of standardized tests, however, it is a necessary tool for education and serves as a gauge to see where our kids are falling short.  As far as the test tricking our kids…that is not the case.  The tests are designed to improve critical thinking and the children are taught to think critically and grade school is the place to start teaching them that.  The people who are ruining our education are the ones that enable our children and parents into the thinking that the tests are too hard for them.  We should be rising to the occasion to teach our children what needs to be taught to do well in the area of critical thinking and to compete in a global economy.  The enablers or supposed do gooders who are trying to lower the standards are not representative of a good majority of parents who want the children stretched and challenged and taught to think critically.  

    • CSket

      I understand your point of view, I agree that we need testing for diagnostic purposes and we have them.  The Norm Reference Testing, IOWA, PSAT all exisist for this purpose.  The FCAT is another beast, it changes yearly adding more benchmarks and the creators admit to placing many items in the test that exceed benchmarks but hide them rather than allow the children the benefit of stating that this question is a bonus question.  There is a time limit to the testing and these questions often throw the higher level kids off the mark, especially with the mentality in education of “teach to the test.” 

      I agree with many of the comments here and I also believe that much of what we are seeing are unintended consequences of a system that may have had good intentions.  Rather than taking a step back and regroup and look at how the MONEY is being wasted and the facts that graduation rates have gone down in Florida and SAT/ACT scores have remained virtually unchanged since the FCAT began there is NO proof that this system works.  Florida is throwing good money after bad money.  When we look at the lobbyists from Pearson, charter schools and virtual companies there are millions of dollars being lobbyied.  As a parent I want the testing that has been tried and proven to assist my children.  Diagnositc testing lets us know where a child needs assistance. 

      The system is broken and it isn’t about wanting money to fund people, we want the money in our classrooms. Not sent to Pearson or an unaccountable system.

    • Foghorn37

      thanks for being a concerned parent, unfortunately many are not and 8 year old kids are holding teachers hostages(for lack of a better term) and are threatening their livelihoods!  that is ridiculous

  • Ayn Marie

    In Florida we have been given the choice of the ineffective and inefficient education bureaucracy, corporate charters and a few independent charters sprinkled about. There is not enough supply to meet the demand for real choice to be exercised.

    Further, why do the powers-that-be (we all know who they are) focus on ethnicity and poverty? All students/parents must be given the proper choice to meet their educational needs. The states can lend support to communities who want to take the initiative and responsibility to run their own schools. We are capable.

    The bottom line should be that students are learning, taxpayer dollars
    are efficiently and effectively spent, competent teachers teach and
    communities have a say in decision-making at the most local level. We
    continue to mover further away from these goal, despite the pretense to suggest otherwise.

    Check out the book, Exposing the Public Education System. It speaks volumes on the subject.

    • Walterbutkus3451

       Why don’t you shadow your child through a few different days in school and see how his/her education is transpiring. Don’t take the word of some sensationalist literature. Most teachers enter the profession out of a strong sense of duty and desire to help children learn and thereby strengthen their community and country. It’s time to see these ‘reforms’ are just an attempt to cash in and create an unnaccountable corporate ‘public’ education system.

      • Ayn Marie

        My son is now completing his Ph.D. in engineering, so days volunteering in the classroom are over. Further, I prefer experience and a problem-solving approach rather than relying on propaganda from any source.

        The education system could not/would not meet my son’s needs years ago, and he requested to be home-schooled, which I did for three years. Thus, our experiences were not the best with our local school system. However, I also realize there are many competent teachers who are dedicated to the craft.

        That said, why are our  choices framed by the various “powers that be” to include either the education system as it now functions or corporate charters?

        Community schools run at the most local level possible with state funding and support that allow competent teachers, parents, and community members to ensure that individual students are properly educated makes the most sense.

  • concerned teacher

     ”but also put resources into the classrooms to allow teachers to teach different strategies to assure students learn,” Bush said.”.. I’ve been teaching since before Bush came along in a needy school and there have not been additional resources nor has FCAT been associated with “different strategies to assure students learn’.  How is making children test prep for 10 weeks of 40 helping them to learn?  My colleagues and I had a good laugh over that one.  Here’s another one:  ““The idea of reform is to assure that kids that are on one track that dooms them for failure for the rest of their life get a chance to be able to dream big dreams and have the capacity to fulfill them.”  We have five year olds that come in late everyday, with a bag of chips for breakfast, up all night, not being able to speak a coherent sentence because nobody ever talks to them and we are going to change their path of doom by testing them developmentally inappropriate test for 10 weeks of the year?  Give me a break.  Everyone in the system thinks it’s child abuse for the povery stricken children who’s parents don’t know enough to stick up for them.  That’s right child abuse… I hear it over and over.

    • Foghorn37

      you hit that right on the nose!  let teachers teach and use portfolios and developmental strategies to see growth!

  • Mindygouldpta

    Those “like-minded people” who made those visits and phone calls and e-mails to legislators against the Parent Trigger bill were the over 320,000 members of Florida PTA. Just want to give credit to all those volunteers as well who will be ready to fight again in 2013.

  • Foghorn37

    of course he’ll go anywhere, on our dime to further advance his interests with the testing publishing company ties.  get rid of him and let’s get somebody impartial.  who is he, god?

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