Another brand of Bush school reform: Jeb’s

March 31, 2011

The president who turned No Child Left Behind from slogan into statute is gone from Washington, and the influence of his signature education law is fading. But another brand of Bush school reform is on the rise.

The salesman is not the 43rd president, George W. Bush, but the 43rd governor of Florida, his brother Jeb.

At the core of the Jeb Bush agenda are ideas drawn from his Florida playbook: Give every public school a grade from A to F. Offer students vouchers to help pay for private school. Don’t let them move into fourth grade unless they know how to read.

Through two foundations he leads in Florida and his vast political connections, Jeb Bush is advancing such policies in states where Republicans have sought his advice on improving schools. His stature in the party and widening role in state-level legislation make him one of the foremost GOP voices on education.

“He is the standard-bearer,” said Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank. “Those governors who are going to have religion on education reform are looking to him to be their mentor.”

With Bush’s support, several states are embracing letter grades for schools. This week, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed bills to launch A-to-F school rating systems in their states, following similar actions in Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana. A voucher bill is moving through the Indiana legislature. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who met with Bush this week, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) are promoting education agendas that echo what Bush calls the “Florida formula.”

Some Democrats are finding common ground with Bush on schools, even though their party scorns his family name.

President Obama joined Bush on March 4 at a Miami high school that the ex-governor had suggested as a turnaround success story. John Hickenlooper invited Bush to his Denver home in December — shortly before the Democrat was sworn in as Colorado governor — to talk about reading programs and mentoring youths. Former West Virginia governor Bob Wise (D) teamed up with Bush last year on a national initiative to expand digital learning.

Seeking a bridge

For Obama, who opposes vouchers but encourages teacher performance pay and charter schools, Bush represents a bridge to conservative Republicans who say the federal government meddles too much in schools. Bush is angling to empower states, but he accepts that Washington has a role in formulating education policy — and that Obama’s views are not too far from his own. On that subject, Bush wants a political truce.

“On education issues, the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bush said in a recent interview in Washington. “He cares about students. My attitude is, on the things where there isn’t a fundamental disagreement, it seems to me we ought to pause, celebrate that and find ways to build on it.”

Activism in education could pay off for Bush, 58, if he seeks to succeed his father and brother in the White House. But Bush waves off questions about presidential ambition, veering into wonkish talk about the importance of longitudinal student data.

He said his mission is “to advocate intense, broad-based reform to accelerate student learning. I don’t think you can do it unless you tear down the walls of resistance and change laws. Systemic change requires policy change. That’s our niche.”

Bush critics weigh in

Many Democrats and labor leaders denounce the Bush agenda. They say that vouchers drain funding from public education and that grades of D and F stigmatize schools that need help. Critics also say other policies he espouses — including merit pay — are unfair to teachers and rely too much on standardized tests.

Florida’s academic gains, critics say, could have been much larger if Bush had sought more collaboration.

“He doesn’t believe in bringing people along with him,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union. “He just forces his will on everybody.”

Ford said many teachers were irate that Obama shared a platform in Miami with a former governor who fought the union almost nonstop for eight years. “The White House is on the wrong track by associating with Jeb Bush,” he said.

Bush said it is “foolhardy” to suggest that teachers unions are “somehow going to be in the vanguard of efforts to raise student achievement.”

When he became governor in 1999, Bush launched a top-to-bottom overhaul of Florida education. It presaged in some respects the testing and accountability regimen of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Florida schools were given letter grades based on academic progress and achievement — a measure Bush said would provide parents a clearer picture of school performance. The state ended what Bush called “social promotion” of third-graders and provided vouchers so those in repeatedly failing public schools could go to private schools — a program later struck down in court.

In one of his biggest defeats, Bush opposed limiting class sizes, which state voters approved in a referendum in 2002.

Bush left office in 2007, and his legacy is much debated. Federal test scores show that Florida’s fourth-graders, especially Hispanic students, made big strides in reading from 1998 to 2009. Eighth-graders posted more modest gains. Participation in Advanced Placement testing has boomed. But the graduation rate (as tracked by Education Week) and 12th-grade reading scores are below the national averages, and major racial and ethnic achievement gaps persist.

In the past few years, Bush has become a guru for state school chiefs, governors, legislative committee chairmen and others — mostly Republicans — in a position to influence education rules and laws.

His Foundation for Florida’s Future pushes Bush priorities within that state, including legislation to expand merit pay and phase out tenure, which Gov. Rick Scott (R) recently signed. Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education promotes his agenda elsewhere. He draws no salary from the two entities. Among the financial backers of his national effort are foundations led by Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and the Walton family.

Bush often voices solidarity with GOP governors known for battling teachers unions, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Ohio’s John Kasich. A March 15 tweet from @JebBush: “Ohio is focused on improving student achievement! Great to see @JohnKasich’s ed plan has digital learning, accountability, choices & more.”

Bush has helped several state school leaders, including Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson, form a coalition for “bold reform” known as “Chiefs for Change.” He has also organized education summits that draw hundreds of policymakers from across the country. Last fall, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan shared the stage with Bush in a Q-and-A session at a conference in Washington.

“Arne and Jeb are really the most influential people at the national level right now pushing college and career readiness for our kids and improvement for our schools,” said Paul G. Pastorek, Louisiana’s superintendent of education and a Republican. “Jeb is working with statehouses and state leaders to directly impact the agenda. He is above all others on the issue among Republicans.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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