Putting Education Reform To The Test

A Q&A With Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Chip Smodovilla / Getty Images News

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush testifies before a U.S. House committee earlier this month.

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in other states about education, he points to policies he championed while in office.

Bush recently spoke with StateImpact Florida about his role in the national education debate, why Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on education and what he’s learned .

Q: Governor, how do you see yourself? How do you see your role as a national education figure?

A: I don’t know if I’m a national education figure. I do know that the Florida experience is one that we like to share because a lot of people are very interested in the academic results that have been achieved over the last decade and few years.

So we have created a strategy of going state by state, where invited, trying to create coalitions of people interested in reform. Telling the Florida story and building on that with exciting new elements of reform that I think states are embracing at record levels.

It’s a really exciting time to be engaged in education reform. The ultimate objective is not just to reform the system. The ultimate objective is to improve student learning.

Q: You mention that you were invited into the states. How do they approach you?

A: Well, they email me normally. It’s pretty simple. I’m fairly accessible.

Our team works with local think tanks and local business organizations and parents’ organizations. So we’ve developed a network, we’re part of a network of reform around the country. Florida’s gains as it relates to reading and math on the 4th grade and 8th grade NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores have become pretty well-known, and so people seek us out. They know we’re engaged in this.

It’s not that complicated to be honest with you.

Q: How would you assess the state of the national education debate right now? It seems like, politically there’s a lot of different cross-currents.  You have Democrats and Republicans who are raising a lot of the same ideas and some of those folks are rejecting others. What’s the state?

A: It’s an interesting state of affairs if you think about it. Unlike most policy areas right now where the parties – particularly anything revolving around Washington – are in a death grip on each other and nothing seems to get done. Very little gets done.

Education is a place, first and foremost because it’s state-driven and locally implemented, that there is more willingness to cross the partisan divide. And you’re right, there are passionate reformers on the left and passionate reformers on the right.

And interestingly now there’s emerging groups that are less focused on reform on the right that want to advocate for local control. And there’s many on the left that don’t believe that reform is appropriate and they want to protect the status of the teachers unions and others in the system.

There’s strange coalitions a-brewin’ here.

Q: I read a story in Education Week that you intervened with ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) last year with Common Core standards. Is that accurate?

A: Well ALEC, first of all, is not this nefarious group I read about in blogs and all this vast right-wing conspiracy stuff. ALEC is a group of reform-minded center-right legislators that convene. They have a policy focus.

I don’t know if there’s a group like that on the left, but there should be. Elected officials should be focused on policy. I’ve worked with ALEC over the years.

There’s a legitimate, honest debate about Common Core standards. Those that oppose it are concerned that somehow this is a set of national standards where the federal government will play a disproportionate role. Others, like myself, do not believe that the federal government’s influence is strong at all and that higher standards that are benchmarked to the world are really where we need to be.

So, as that debate began I did get asked to intervene. I did. I don’t think that they’ve completely finished their work in terms of the recommendation they’ll make to state legislatures across the country.

Q: Have you gotten any criticism from folks on some of the positions you hold? There are some positions you hold that some Republicans disagree with: Common Core; the role of the federal government in kind of implementing some of these reforms. What kind of criticisms have you heard?

A: Well I haven’t heard any criticism of my advocacy of the federal government taking a more muscular role in education policy because frankly I don’t believe that.

But whether it’s Common Core standards or other issues where you’re trying to force change to yield a greater chance for students to learn – which is the ultimate objective here – and put pressure on the system, there are those that are uncomfortable about that.

There are a lot of conservative legislators in rural areas where the school districts are the largest employer of their community. Change is hard, and as Republicans gain control over increasing numbers of state legislatures they’re in positions of responsibility. And if the reform agenda comes up it’s not assured that conservative embrace every element of what the reformers in those states are proposing.

If I’m criticized, it’s because I do believe that there ought to be a sense of urgency about this. That we need to tear down the old order. That we have tools now that didn’t exist as it relates to evaluation. How you can assess the performance of teachers. How you can bring rich content into the classroom over the Internet in a digital form.

Those kinds of things scare people, I guess, so maybe I’m criticized for that. I don’t get a lot of direct criticism though – maybe I’m not watching. And frankly I don’t really care either.

I believe what I believe and I think I have a small platform on which I can advance these ideas. They seem to be embraced by a lot of people. It’s ultimately the decision of state leaders to implement these things and we work in unison with them and try to help them.

Q: I was thinking more about the role of Race to the Top in basically funding some of these programs. That’s something you have supported.

A: I support it but I don’t think it’s the end-all and be-all.

Q: My understanding is you support it because, right now,  in the absence of any other way to get these things done that’s what’s going to get them done.

A: I’ve always believed that if you support reform or you support a particular idea that you ought to fund that idea first and not the system. So if Race To The Top is funding reform-oriented solutions to the crisis in education today, I’m supportive of it.

The fact that it comes from the federal government gives me some unease, to be honest with you, but look it had a positive impact on changing the direction of the states that were resisting reform across the board. And in fact, in many states that didn’t get Race To The Top money they did make changes to their laws to create a more open system so they began on the path to reform even though they didn’t get the money.

Q: Let me ask you about the foundations, how they work together. You mentioned taking the Florida model and kind of talking to people about these ideas in their states. Do these foundations have the ability to test drive ideas and then market them nationally once you have some results to show folks?

A: I haven’t looked at it that way, but in fact, Florida, because it continues to be a leader under the leadership of Gov. Scott and the Florida Legislature, they’re very open to new thinking and they’ve  embraced reform.

So Florida continues to be a model that other people look at. It’s not designed that way though.

There are other states, like Indiana and Louisiana now, that in our incredibly competitive federalist system are vying for incredibly important leadership positions and they’ve achieved it. And there are quite a few other states that are doing interesting things.

We’re now at a point, I think, where sharing the Florida experience is part of what we do. The other part is to share the experience of the success – the strategic success and the tactical success – of getting really bold reforms done as Mitch Daniels and the Indiana legislature did last year and as (Louisiana Gov.) Bobby Jindal is doing right now.

Q: How do you guys pick your issues? Obviously effectiveness has to be a key priority, but are there other factors as well?

A: We first advocate a simple fact that it’s hard in policy world to embrace — because we live in a world of immediate gratification — there’s enormous pressures in politics to do something. It typically has a short-term focus with a short-term impact.

So we advocate long-term thinking and broad-based policy reform. There is no one silver bullet. And that’s kind of the distinguishing factor of the Florida story – was that we never stopped advocating reform and it was comprehensive in its approach.

I would argue that a robust accountability system, best of class collection of data, evaluating teachers based on student learning, an expansive and robust school choice program – both public and private, the elimination of social promotion, incenting the kind of success you want – which are learning gains for students and having a different consequence between improvement excellence and mediocrity and failure.

Those are the elements of the Florida story so we advocate those in different ways across the state. And now we have new elements of that agenda that relate to principally to digital learning, which is a new phenomenon that I think offers tremendous hope to school that interested in students learning at a world-class level.

Q: We’ve got sister sites in Indiana and Ohio and in those states they’re concerned about the impact of the third grade reading requirement. What would you say to those state about the impact in Florida and adopting the requirement in Indiana or Ohio?

A: Another thing our foundation does is help people look into the future based on the Florida experience and share with them what works and what doesn’t at least based on what we tried to do and what we were successful in doing in Florida.

The social promotion policy is a good example of that. At the time that we proposed this, which I believe was 2002 and it was passed, roughly 30 percent of our students were below basic readers. Which meant that with the exception of a few cases of good-faith exemptions, you could almost have a third of your kids held back.

It was a pretty traumatic time. I would match the concerns of Florida at the time with Indiana or Ohio.

And what happened was the system changed. It really did require that you teach children differently so that they could learn how to read.

The focus started earlier — in Kindergarten, first and second grade — so there wasn’t this huge pressure and imposition on third grade teachers and third grade students. We basically cut in half the functional illiteracy in the state over a two-year period. Was it tough? Yeah, it was tough. Did it create trauma? It did, but it also eliminated half of the kids that ultimately are almost guaranteed to drop out when they reach 16 because they became more functional in being able to acquire knowledge.

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. The idea of reform is not to be harsh or to hurt people it is so 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.

While people should be concerned about change – it’s natural, we’re all human beings and we like to be kind of in a sedentary existence – this kind of change will yield far better results for their communities.

Q: The Foundation for Florida’s Future was pushing both the parent empowerment act and funding for charter schools. Neither of those got through in the form that the foundation wanted. Are there any lessons from that and does this mark a change of some sort for education policy in Florida?

A: Not really. The parent trigger bill, or the parent empowerment bill, got immersed into byzantine politics of the Florida Senate where it failed on a 20-20 vote at the very end because one member – who had voted consistently for it – wanted to have a bill heard prior to that bill being heard (background here).

You can’t change the course of history when emotions are frayed and people are angry and external ideas like this happen. So my guess is next year that bill will pass.

It’s a bill, by the way, that is not going to turn the world upside down. It simply says that in failing schools parents should have an advisory role about the options that the federal law requires all schools in the entire country have to do. If you’re in a failing school you have four options. And parents should have some say in which option is going to be implemented.

So we’ll go back and help the group that’s based in California – -there’s another good example of a coalition that’s not based on partisanship or ideology. The Parent Revolution group that has sponsored this across the country that we’re trying to help them on is a center-left organization. I’m happy to be helping people that are passionate about empowering parents for student learning.

Q: How active were you and the foundation in pushing for those bills and also for changes in the FCAT scoring?

A: We’ve been pretty active, not so much on the charter school bill because it was a difficult year to imagine that being accomplished, but the parent empowerment bill in the end we were actively engaged. And the staff of the foundation has been engaged in providing information on the cut score changes for sure.

And how active was I? Personally, I would say not too active on anything but the very last day when I got to call my friend Alan Hays who was the holdout vote  and he didn’t take my humble suggestion.


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