Jeb Bush Talks Up Florida’s Education Model, and Plays Down a White House Bid

By Sean Cavanagh — January 04, 2011 6 min read
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During his two terms as Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush championed a far-reaching education agenda, which included support for vouchers, charters, and grades for schools, polices that people tended to love or hate, with little middle ground. But now, a lot of Republican state officials around the country are turning with admiring eyes to Bush’s model for Florida’s schools, which they hope to imitate, as I explained in a story this week.

In an interview with EdWeek, Bush spoke about his role as an informal counselor to state officials on the politics and policy of getting Florida-style education proposals into law.

I didn’t have room in my original story for some of the observations and arguments he made during my interview with him, so I’m including them here.

On the most common advice he gives state officials:

“All of the things that we’ve done were controversial, all of them required hard work, but all of them were eminently do-able,” said Bush, 57, of his time as Florida’s governor. “It wasn’t like sending a man to the moon from a standing start, with no resources, no way of doing it. [It’s about] applying common sense. The one thing that kind of matters is dogged determination, which is a characteristic in politics that you don’t always see. We’re short-term thinkers in our culture, and politics reflects our culture. You have to stick with this over the long haul.”

He and the staff of his education foundation focused on national issues have “a pretty good grasp” of how to build political support for school proposals, Bush said. “I’m not too old— I still remember the political fights and the strategies that we learned over time [and how] to get better at selling bolder policies.”

One of the most controversial pieces of his agenda, his creation in 1999 of the A+ plan, created more aggressive testing and a new school grading system, over loud objections from critics. That first, difficult step laid the groundwork for later policies, on choice, retention, and in other areas, Bush recalled.

“Accountability was the first element,” he said. “That created a sense of urgency. Strategies were then developed so that it created rising student achievement, because every kid in the school matters in our accountability system.”

Critics of the A+ plan have said it publicly branded struggling schools as failures, and that its grade system isn’t as fair or precise as state officials claim. But Bush said that state officials worked to help low-performing schools, through efforts such as providing them with reading coaches and mentors and establishing a state center on reading research. “We did a bunch of stuff because there was an expectation that if we did nothing, schools would languish and it would create real problems for communities.”

Florida became a laboratory for public and private school choice under Bush, though one of his prized voucher programs, Opportunity Scholarships, was struck down by Florida’s Supreme Court in 2006. In Bush’s view, vouchers “created pressure on the system to make sure that underperforming schools would do better.”

Some researchers regard Florida’s testing and A-F school grading model as superior to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, because it creates more rewards for improvement and is a more nuanced in how it evaluates schools. One researcher of this opinion is David Figlio, of Northwestern University, who I interviewed for my story. NCLB is based on a system in which there are “30 ways to fail and only one way to succeed,” Figlio explained. By contrast, Florida’s testing-and-grading model is “a lot more humane than No Child Left Behind in how it’s implemented,” he said.

In the interview, Bush said that when Congress reauthorizes No Child Left Behind, lawmakers would be wise to consider Florida’s approach.

“It’s fair. It rewards improvement, rather than an absolute result,” Bush said. “It’s half proficiency, half improvement. Every school can show improvement and there are rewards for it. It’s a different system, but I think it’s actually a better system. That probably gets me in trouble with Margaret Spellings, my great friend...Every state should have a robust accountability system. It’s the highest priority, other than maybe the economy. It’s where legislators and governors can really make a difference...[if it’s a] national priority in our country to improve student learning, then every state ought should be implementing an I’m-not-kidding accountability system, where there’s a different between excellence, improvement, mediocrity, and failure.”

Turning back to the state level, I asked him about a proposal put forward by the transition team for Florida’s new governor, Republican Rick Scott, recommending that the state create a major new voucher-type program, called “education savings accounts,” which would allow families use the state money to pay for a host of private school options. Patricia Levesque, who served as deputy chief of staff for education in Bush’s governor’s office, and who now works with his education foundations, is a member of the transition team.

I interviewed Bush before Scott’s team revealed some details of the plan. But the former governor, probably to no one’s surprise, spoke favorably of the concept.

“It’s an intriguing idea,” Bush said, “and it would be a good idea. Our experience is that more choices for families engages them more in their children’s education. And the net effect in Florida, at least, has been that the public schools have gotten better. An idea like that has great merit...I’ve been busy on other things, so I haven’t followed the specifics of that proposal, but sure, a lot of these ideas ought to be considered. Depending on where the governor, and the state school officer, and the legislature are in terms of their interest on this, I have no problems being big and bold, in terms of education policy.”

It’s probably worth noting that Bush has occassionally praised Democratic-sponsored initiatives, too. He recently credited U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for “advancing education reform across the nation,” and he once credited the Obama administration for its willingness to take on a “core constituency"—teachers unions, with whom Bush tussled on numerous occasions.

The interview included the obligatory question about Bush’s political aspirations, and if they include a bid for the White House, specifically. (Some Republicans have also clamored for him to run for the U.S. Senate.)

“Let me put it this way—If I was organizing my life around running for president, I don’t think you would do the work, the intensity of the work we’re doing on education policy,” Bush explained. “Presidents can create a national priority on education, but....presidents nor secretaries of education should be driving policy, in my mind. This really should be driven at the state and local level, with federal support. So, I think it’s actually a leading indicator [that] this is where my passions are. And it could be leading indicator for those that follow these things. I’m sure there are like six people on the planet that care about what my aspirations are—that I’m not running.”

Photo: Jeb Bush waves as he is introduced to the crowd during inauguration ceremonies for Republican Rick Scott on Jan. 4 outside the Old Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. By Chris O’Meara/AP.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.