School & District Management

Jeb Bush’s Influence on Education Policy Spreads

By Sean Cavanagh — December 29, 2010 12 min read
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush helps 5th graders Angelica Pinero, 11, center, and Diamonique Christian, 11, right, with math exercises during a visit to Tangelo Park Elementary school in Orlando, Fla., in Oct. Since leaving office, Mr. Bush’s education policies have spread beyond Florida.
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Three years ago, Jeb Bush left the Florida governor’s office with a legacy of having brought sweeping changes to his state’s education system, through hard-edged policies that gave parents and students more choices and demanded more of schools.

Today, that legacy seems poised to grow—and well beyond Florida.

In state capitals across the country, numerous lawmakers and officeholders say they are determined to follow the ambitious and often polarizing education blueprint fashioned by Mr. Bush, a Republican, during his two terms as Florida’s governor. Many conservatives specifically cite Mr. Bush, who chairs a foundation that seeks to explain and expand his Florida model, as the intellectual architect of policies to support vouchers and charter schools, improved and more aggressive testing, and school grading systems, which they hope to replicate.

“He’s had an incredible influence on me, because he knows exactly what to do and how to get it done,” said Tony Bennett, Indiana’s elected superintendent of public instruction. The Republican recently announced his participation in a group of state schools chiefs who will promote such policies as school choice and performance-based evaluation of teachers and administrators, an endeavor backed by Mr. Bush’s foundation.

“He wore what he believed would change the system on his sleeve,” Mr. Bennett said, “and he really invited the debate.”

Passionate About Policy

As the brother of the nation’s 43rd president and the son of its 41st, Mr. Bush draws attention for reasons that have nothing to do with his record governing the nation’s fourth-most-populous state. Speculation persists about whether he might make his own run for the White House someday, despite his repeated disavowals of presidential ambitions.

Since his second and final term as governor ended in 2007, Mr. Bush has shown less appetite for the national spotlight than for the intricacies of education policy.

Not long after leaving office, he launched the Foundation for Excellence in Education, headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla. It lists as one of its main goals helping governors, legislators, and others pursue policy changes in areas such as improving the use of data, teacher effectiveness, and school choice. He also chairs another group, the Foundation for Florida’s Future, which focuses on a similar education agenda in his home state, specifically.

Earlier this year, Mr. Bush and Bob Wise, a former Democratic governor of West Virginia, announced they would co-chair the Digital Learning Council, a coalition of business leaders, advocates, and others seeking to improve the use of technology in schools, identify best practices in that area, and encourage states to adopt those strategies.

To date, the Foundation for Excellence in Education has worked with elected officials and organizations in at least 16 states, with Mr. Bush having conducted much of that outreach on his own. Some elected officials seek his advice on the nitty-gritty of policy. Others ask for his counsel on how to sell controversial proposals to elected officials and the public.

Mr. Bush, 57, says he urges them to act boldly, even if it causes them grief and costs them political capital.

“If they want to be elected and be popular, then they probably ought to go do something else,” he said in an interview. “This takes a lot of hard work, and it’s typically pretty controversial.

“What I try to tell people interested in starting down this path is [that] taking an idea, converting it into policy, turning that policy into law, and then executing that law is a process that’s not dissimilar to a political campaign,” he added. “You’re going from start to finish. You have to be intensely focused on this.”

Mr. Bush’s work with state policymakers is hands-on.

Earlier this year, he phoned individual Oklahoma legislators to urge their adoption of a Florida-style program to provide vouchers to students with disabilities, according to his aides, a measure that eventually became law. In June, he met with staff members of Louisiana’s education department and offered advice on how to implement the state’s newly adopted school-grading law effectively. He has also traveled to other states to speak about Florida’s model at the invitation of elected officials and advocacy groups.

One such state is Indiana. This month, Mr. Bennett and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels unveiled their goals for the upcoming legislative session, which include expanding charter schools—a core tenet of Mr. Bush’s work in Florida—and taking more aggressive steps to turn around low-performing schools.

Both the governor and state Superintendent Bennett have also voiced support for vouchers. In addition, Mr. Bennett is working with the state’s board of education to develop a system to grade schools from A to F based on academic performance. And Indiana this year approved a law allowing 3rd graders to be retained if they cannot show basic literacy skills over time. On the second two fronts, state officials have been influenced by Florida’s policies, Mr. Bennett noted.

In November, the Foundation for Excellence in Education hosted a conference in Washington meant to highlight innovations in teacher evaluation, technology, and other areas, which drew state officials, researchers, and corporate executives from around the country. At that conference, five state schools chiefs—Mr. Bennett, Deborah Gist of Rhode Island, Paul Pastorek of Louisiana, Gerard Robinson of Virginia, and Eric Smith of Florida—announced their formation of a group to support new approaches to paying and evaluating teachers and administrators, school choice, and improved tests and standards, among other goals.

Right Climate

The national political environment seems ripe for the kinds of changes Mr. Bush favors. The recent midterm elections saw Republicans seize control of a majority of governors’ offices—29 in all—as well as take hold of both chambers of the legislature in 25 states; they now have more state legislative seats than at any time since the 1920s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a research and policy organization in Denver.

As Florida’s governor, Mr. Bush shepherded a series of bold, yet divisive school proposals into law, in most cases with strong backing from a GOP-dominated legislature.

In 1999, the legislature approved his A+ Accountability Plan, which requires that students be tested annually, sets A-F letter grades for the state’s schools, and allows students in persistently low-performing schools to transfer to higher-performing public schools. The law—approved about three years before the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act—also originally allowed families of students in persistently struggling schools to obtain vouchers to attend private schools. (“Florida Governor Poised To Sign Statewide Voucher Bill,” June 23, 1999.)

The private school option, which offered students average payments of about $4,200, ended when it was deemed unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. Yet other voucher-type programs adopted during Mr. Bush’s tenure remain. One provides vouchers to students with disabilities to attend private schools. Another program, which offers corporations tax credits to cover private school tuition costs for low-income students, was expanded this year by Florida lawmakers.

Other changes included a law that requires students to demonstrate literacy skills before moving beyond 3rd grade, and policies expanding charter schools and alternative routes to teacher certification. Florida was also an early testing ground for performance pay; the state awards high-performing and improving schools extra money, which they can use to give bonuses to teachers and school staff members, among other options for spending it.

Bruising Fights

Mr. Bush’s detractors accused him of ramming unproven and inflexible strategies into law with too little outside input. His school policies sparked public protests and sit-ins, including one in which a state lawmaker arranged for a group of 3rd graders to stake out the governor’s office to protest a retention policy supported by Mr. Bush.

Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, is skeptical of states’ efforts to follow Mr. Bush’s model in Florida, which the union official described as “the test controls everything.” Some aspects of Mr. Bush’s work were admirable, he said, like his focus on improving struggling schools and building the amount of available state data on schools and students. But governors and lawmakers in other states would be advised to pay more attention to teachers’ concerns if they want to make their policies sustainable, argued Mr. Pudlow, whose union is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

“Jeb’s approach was always my-way-or-the-highway,” he said. “He was not interested in engaging us.”

Mr. Bush remembers things differently. He acknowledges pushing hard for his agenda and antagonizing opponents. “I wasn’t that good at singing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” he said. But he also asserted that his union critics weren’t offering constructive alternatives.

“They were at the table,” the former governor recalled. “They just didn’t like what they saw.”

The Obama administration has encouraged state officials and unions to find common ground on issues like merit pay, teacher evaluation, and charter school expansion, most notably through the federal Race to the Top competition, part of the economic-stimulus program. Mr. Bush said he thought state elected officials’ willingness to negotiate with critics depends on whether they can do so without straying from their goals.

“Diluting something to the point where it won’t work is a complete waste of time,” Mr. Bush said. “But every state’s going to be different. Every leader has a different approach. ... Governors have the chance to be big and bold. They don’t have to paint in pastel colors.”

Assessing the Record

Supporters of Mr. Bush’s education record point to the state’s gains in 4th grade math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an independent, federally administered exam. Since the late 1990s, Florida students’ improvements have outpaced national averages, and the state’s black and Hispanic 4th graders have made strides during that period in closing the gap that separates them from their white peers, particularly in reading.

But Florida’s record at the 8th grade level is more mixed. In math, the state’s scores lag slightly behind national averages and are slightly ahead in reading. (The score difference in math is statistically significant, though the one in reading is not, federal officials say.) Both the math and reading scores have improved over time. According to data compiled for Education Week’s 2010 report, Diplomas Count, Florida’s high school graduation rate trails national averages, though it also improved faster than the nation from 1997 to 2007. Officials from Mr. Bush’s nationally focused foundation say they are confident that Florida’s performance at the secondary level will improve, pointing to tougher academic requirements established during his second term as governor and by state officials since then.

Not everyone thinks Florida’s record warrants imitation. After Mr. Bush spoke at a 2009 education forum in Indiana, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette warned against state officials rushing to adopt Florida’s strategies.

“The interest in Bush’s school reform efforts by Republicans Daniels and Bennett likely has more to do with his choice agenda than with results,” the newspapers editorialized, adding: “Hoosiers should take a more critical look at Jeb Bush’s education record. ... Perhaps the best practices can be found in our own backyard.”

David N. Figlio, a professor of education, social policy, and economics at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., who has studied Florida’s school choice and testing policies, says the evidence suggests that “by and large, the accountability program has been successful,” particularly in raising the performance of minority and disadvantaged students. Mr. Figlio recently co-wrote a study that found Florida’s tax-credit program that covers young, disadvantaged students’ private school tuitions produced modest gains in test scores at public schools forced to compete for those students.

For other states considering Florida-style policies, the evidence indicates that “moderate-sized school choice programs, aimed at low-income students, are nothing to be afraid of,” Mr. Figlio said.

Other questions for state officials to consider about Florida’s approach are more difficult to answer, because they’re more difficult to measure, he added. Are the state’s schools overly focused on testing, Mr. Figlio asked, at the expense of a more wholistic approach to teaching and learning? Are subjects that aren’t tested being ignored or underemphasized?

“The positive is that test scores have gone up,” he said, but a critic can still reasonably ask, “ ‘Yes, but at what cost?’ ”

Tailored Approaches

Supporters of Florida’s strategies point out that the state adjusted and improved its testing and grading policies over time. For instance, Mr. Bush backed changes to the school-grading system to credit schools for individual students’ year-to-year improvement and put more emphasis on boosting struggling students’ performance, noted John Winn, who served as an education commissioner in the former governor’s administration. Other states need to be ready to make similar modifications, he said.

“The trick is to set the bar so that it’s attainable,” Mr. Winn said. “If it’s not attainable, it loses its motivating factor.”

Mr. Bush’s strategies have drawn the interest of conservative lawmakers in states that would seem to have little in common with Florida, educationally or demographically. Utah Speaker of the House David Clark said he is impressed that Florida has made educational gains despite its broad diversity and the challenges of working with a high percentage of students with limited-English proficiency. He became more interested in Florida’s approach after hearing Mr. Bush speak at a recent national conference of state lawmakers.

“I thought, if they can be successful in that head wind, we can do it in Utah,” recalled Mr. Clark.

Earlier this year, Mr. Clark wrote an opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune saying he wants his state to follow Florida’s lead in areas such as toughening 3rd grade retention policies, supporting alternative-certification options for teachers, and expanding online coursetaking. Putting those policies into place is a priority, “but it will take time, and it will take a considerable amount of effort,” he said in an interview.

In Mr. Bush’s view, state officials should look to Florida’s experience for guidance, but tailor their policies to meet their states’ needs.

“It’s really a strategic approach and a long-term approach,” Mr. Bush said. “There were a lot of lessons we learned in our state that can be applied, and there are things we didn’t do that other states should do. ... It’s not just Xeroxing some four-page white paper. That’s not what this is about.”

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Jeb Bush’s Influence Spreads on Education Policy

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