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.
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:
- Setting high standards for students
- Holding teachers and schools accountable
- 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.
A PRETTY TRAUMATIC TIME
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.
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.
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.”
A BUSH BACKLASH
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.
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.