Jeb Bush’s disdain for public education

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush-AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, Hector Gabino
Jeb Bush (AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, Hector Gabino)

It’s always useful to know where  people are coming from, so we can thank former Florida governor Jeb Bush for making it so easy to understand where he stands on public education. He has nothing but disdain for it.

If you think this is somehow an exaggeration, consider what Bush, a national education reform leader, has said recently about the subject. In his keynote speech this week at the Mackinac Policy Conference in northern Michigan, Bush said, according to the Huffington Post:

We must expand [school] choice. Our governance model includes over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.

and

We can’t just outsource public education to bureaucracies and public education unions and hope for the best.

 

Mind you, Bush does support “outsourcing” public education to for-profit companies, as is evidenced by his longtime support for charter schools run by for-profit companies as well as private school vouchers paid for with public funds. His annual education summits in Washington are always sponsored by for-profit companies. And he famously said last year that shopping for a school should be like shopping for milk:

Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose. Go down any supermarket aisle – you’ll find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk — chocolate, strawberry or vanilla — and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk. Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?

Bush’s latest diatribe against traditional public schools and teachers unions reveals a mentality about public education that doesn’t actually square with the facts. Unions don’t run schools; it is a stubborn fact that there are always public officials who sign onto contracts too. One can rightly argue that teachers unions were sluggish to embrace necessary reforms, but the suggestion that they run the schools is inaccurate — though useful in whipping up anti-union and anti-public education sentiment.

Bush’s use of the term “government-run monopolies” to describe traditional public schools was part of a strategy for promoting school vouchers that was laid out by anti-public education activists more than a decade ago. In a 2002 Heritage Foundation speech by Dick DeVos, the son of the co-founder of Amway (a portion of which you can see in this video)  and urged voucher proponents to refer to public schools as “government schools” to conjure the image of big government telling people what to do. He also said, “We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” apparently out of fear that critics would take steps to counter his strategy. As evidenced by Bush’s pejorative rhetoric, public school opponents are quiet no longer.

Opposition to public schools has long been strong among some Christian religious activists, who were offended that public schools did not teach religious dogma and dared to suggest that evolution was biology’s animating principle. But the visceral antipathy toward the public education — which has actually been the country’s most important civic institution — has now, unfortunately, gone well beyond this group.

The Huffington Post reported that in his keynote speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Bush praised public charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools, while exaggerating the success of Michigan charter schools in the process.

There are 274 such schools in Michigan, and Bush argued that the state leads others in charter school performance, with those schools also outperforming traditional public schools.

But it is difficult to concisely characterize charter school quality nationwide, and the study on Michigan’s schools Bush touted is less definitive than he made it sound.

That study, released in January by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that while students in Michigan’s charter schools are raising their test scores more quickly than their peers in public schools, they are still performing at much lower levels. Charter school students in the state gain about two months of reading and math knowledge over their peers each year — but 80 percent of charter schools perform below the 50th percentile of achievement in reading, and 84 percent perform below that threshold in math.

Another study — this one by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — found that about a quarter of Michigan’s charters fell into the bottom 15 percent of the state’s schools on eighth grade math and the bottom 21 percent in eighth grade reading.

These sorts of facts never seemed to faze Bush as he pioneered controversial corporate-based school reform in Florida and then advanced it in other states through his two education foundations and his Chiefs for Change group, composed of like-minded current and former state education commissioners. Bush frequently talks about the success of his reforms — put high-stakes testing at the center of Florida’s school accountability system despite enormous problems with the testing program — even though they were not actually successful, according to this this analysis.

In Michigan, Bush pushed anew for the evisceration of the public education system as it exists today, as if he actually has a reasonable plan to replace traditional public schools. He doesn’t. None of his reform followers do either.

But at least we can thank Bush for making his intentions well known. People who refuse to see what Bush and his followers are really trying to do can’t say they weren’t warned.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 31, 2013