Jeb Bush’s witless attack on Matt Damon

Matt DAmon in 2011 Matt Damon in 2011

(Update: Adding more about Florida voucher program)

Put this in the you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff category: Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and national school reform leader, used Twitter to attack Matt Damon, the actor, for doing something that Bush himself had done.

Both Bush and Damon have been in the news, but (until this) for somewhat different reasons. Bush has been dealing with the serious fallout from the spectacular and embarrassing downfall last week of his protege, Tony Bennett, as Florida’s education commissioner last week (more on that below). Damon has been publicizing his newly released movie, “Elysium.”

So  how did it happen that Bush went after Damon? Bush’s weak punch came in the form of this tweet:

 

Here’s the background:

Damon opposes the corporate-influenced brand of school reform that Bush pioneered when he was governor of Florida, from 1999-2007. He doesn’t run around talking about it all the time, but he did appear in 2011 at a rally in Washington D.C., where he discussed  his own public school education in which teachers and students had the freedom to be creative. In his well-received speech, he contrasted that experience with public schools in today’s era of standardized test-based reform, in which classrooms have been turned into test prep factories and teachers have been unfairly demonized for the problems of urban education. (Teachers now, can be assessed by the test scores of students they don’t have and subjects they don’t teach. No kidding. Read about it here.)

Damon just moved to Los Angeles, which is in the thick of corporate-based school reform, and recently said he and his wife decided to send their children to private schools. And why not? Why would he put his children into schools that have turned the joy of learning into a test-focused grind and that can’t give his children the public school education he had? Why should anybody?

It is not the case that Damon was talking about how corporate-based school reform was making public schools better, and then decided the schools still weren’t great enough for his own children. Who would do that?

Jeb Bush pioneered corporate-influenced school reform when he was governor of Florida from 1999-2007, and since then through two foundations he runs, becoming a national voice on the subject. A number of states have followed his program, which included using standardized tests for high-stakes assessment decisions, including an A-F school grading system that, incidentally, has become so corrupted that even Republicans in the state have recently denounced it. Bush also pushed a “choice” agenda which included charter schools run by for-profit companies, vouchers that used public money to pay for private school tuition, and more.

Now Bush, who pushed his reform agenda to transform the Florida public education system in the name for kids everywhere in the state, managed to send his own sons to Florida private schools, Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami and Bolles School in Jacksonville.

Hmmm. Did Bush forget where his children went? Did Bush not actually write the tweet? Was Bush trying to change the subject from Bennett’s downfall, the result of revelations that, when he was Indiana schools chief last year, Bennett had manipulated the Bush-inspired A-F school grading system to help a charter school he had praised that was run by a Republican donor? (Incidentally, that A-F school grading system that Bush started in Florida has become so degraded that even Republicans in the state say it has no validity.)

The Bush folks, perhaps recognizing who the actual hypocrite was in this episode, appeared to have tried to walk back the first tweet with this subsequent missive:

 

And a Bush representative told the New York Daily News that Bush wasn’t coming down on Damon for sending his daughters to private school but he was just making the point that Damon “has criticized and opposed efforts by those who are working to make sure low-income parents have the same choice he had.”

Oh please. Damon’s advocacy for quality public education is an effort to help low-income students attend good public schools. Damon has said he wants all families to have the same choice he had: a neighborhood public school education that was well-rounded and strong. He rightly points out that corporate-influenced reform isn’t the answer. In fact, low-income families consistently say what they really want is the choice not to need a choice — or, rather, a well-run neighborhood school.)

Two big studies on charter schools — done by a Stanford-affiliated institute that is actually funded by pro-charter foundations but that is seen by charter supporters as having validity — concluded that most charters don’t do any better than traditional public schools and plenty do worse. Furthermore, newspaper stories have shown that many if not most of the high-flying charters get results in part by forcing out the most troubled and under-performing students, which they aren’t really allowed to do but find a way to do it anyway. Suspensions at some charter schools are higher than 50 percent.

Problems with voucher programs are legion, including public money being used at creationist religious schools in Louisiana that teach students that dinosaurs co-existed with humans because, after all, the world was created no more than 10,000 years ago. In Florida, the Bush-advocated voucher program for low-income students, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, has a maximum award of $4,335 a year, according to the program’s website. The Gulliver website says that it cost $12,760 for pre-K through third grade, and varying rates up to $28,250 for grades 6-12. What kind of choice does this program give to low-income students?  According to the Orlando Sentinel, nearly 83 percent of the students in the program attend religious schools.

Many reformers say that traditional urban public schools had failed too many students for too long and that something had to be done. They are right. The question always was what was the right thing to do to improve these schools. All of the adults in the room should have honestly faced the real reasons for the failure — the effects of children living in poverty, underfunded schools, outdated and badly drawn curriculum, huge class sizes, disgusting school facilities, and, yes, teachers and principals who no longer belonged in the classroom. Instead, reformers came up with tests, tests and more tests, and when that didn’t work, they unfairly blamed all the problems on teachers and instituted unfair high-stakes assessment systems and so-called “choice” schemes that have made things worse than they were before.

This is what is behind Bush’s ridiculous tweet about Damon.

Let’s leave this at one last tweet by a Bush supporter:

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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