‘Reform is never complete’ — At Capitol, Bush advocates school choice

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 11-Aug-2010

In a visit to the Oklahoma state Capitol, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush made an impassioned plea for options of school choice for Oklahomans, especially those students in low performing school or with special needs. He praised the Legislature’s creation of the Lindsey Nicole Henry special needs scholarship, a reform measure the governor signed this spring.  

Bush pressed his case for more and more choices, and accountability reforms, in meetings with legislators, supporters of reform, business community leaders — and in an early morning boost to a reform-minded candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.

At the Capitol, Bush spoke before a special meeting of legislators, staff, and reform advocates, who met in the chamber of the state House of Representatives. He used a power point presentation to document Florida’s development, over a decade of choice-oriented reform, from a state of languishing student achievement into a comparative powerhouse.

In key standardized measurements, Florida went from average reading scores of 208 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1992, to 214 in 2002, and to 226 today.

During a 12-year period when Oklahoma achievement stayed comparatively flat, with one-third of students “below basic” in fourth grade reading, Florida improved, dropping from 47% “below basic” in 1998 to just 27% in 2009. Differences between the two states, other than raw numbers, were largely driven by Florida’s vigorous embrace of educational reforms, including robust varieties of school choice.

Bush said the Sunshine State’s foundational reforms emerged from 1999 to 2006. He was surprised at how significant a seemingly simple shift – giving all schools grades from A to F for performance – was in the process of accountability.

A second key step came with introduction of rewards and consequences for school results. His state today “pays” school sites for letter grade improvements, even if it is from D/F to C, and for maintenance of A grades.  As Bush explained, students from schools that fail two out of every four previous years are given options to shift to higher performing public schools or to participating private schools.

Promotion and graduation requirements were stiffened, beginning at the third grade level.  In a session with reporters after his House speech, Bush elaborated: “A practical result of our system is the elimination of social promotion in the third grade. As we’ve implemented that focus, a comprehensive approach to retention, we began to see dramatic increases in reading performance, and an increase in third grade retention.” Within years, data showed that third grade retention when merited, and a focus on building reading skills, has yielded middle school and early high school improvements, Bush said.  

He reflected, “Without rigor, when it comes to the high school years, let’s be honest. If our 12th grade test measures less than 12th grade achievement, it we let kids graduate without knowing where they are, we’ve engaged in that soft bigotry of lower expectations. “

In Bush’s considered view, “Choice is essential to accelerate the process of reform. It is the catalytic converter of reform. Competition is part of our DNA in America,” and, he said, it is the linchpin of achieving better schools.”

In the legislative speech, Bush said “funding for student success” was essential, and advocated that the state “fund reform first, even before general fund appropriations.”

Finally, Bush told the legislators, a menu of choice is essential to make the system student-focused, rather than system-focused.  That “menu” includes what is undoubtedly the most vigorous range of school choice options in America. McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities are similar to the state’s new Henry Scholarships. Corporate tax credit scholarships benefiting low income students whose parents choose private schools are another example.

Florida has the second largest cluster of public charter schools in the United States, and additionally has more than 100,000 students participating in virtual schools. In the early childhood years, Florida regulations allow vouchers for pre-Kindergarten education.

The cumulative impact of the reforms include the transformation of educational performance among those called – both pejoratively and in admiration – “Bush babies.” The data demonstrates that middle school performance has steadily advanced, as elementary children of 2001, when choice programs hit their stride in Florida, reached the middle school years in 2008-09. 

In a Blue Room press conference, CapitolBeatOK asked Bush how Oklahoma might weather possible passage of State Question 744, an initiative proposal that would, if enacted by voters, shift as much as $1.3 billion in state government spending from all other purposes toward common education.  Bush answered cautiously:

“Families adjust their budgets when the economy takes a downturn. If you look at the cumulative balance sheets of American businesses now, it’s clear they responded rationally and properly to the recession. Government responds differently, and that’s a problem.

“If that measure passes, it won’t be my problem, it will be the problem of the next governor and your Legislature. Still, I am confident that we, in Florida and in Oklahoma, can respond properly to spending priorities in down times. Budgets can always be challenged.

“The problem is at the very source of the argument. Can you prove, can anyone prove, that more dollars equal better achievement? There is no evidence of that. What there is evidence of is that we moved Florida from the bottom of the pack in terms of achievement up to the middle and a little better. And that happened due to more choices, not more money.

“The NAEP data shows it’s a false choice, and a false debate. There is simply no data that more money equals better performance, so the very source of the argument is faulty. What needs to dominate debate is not dollars and cents but the fact that every state can figure out how students can learn. The object is to produce productive people who can function in a competitive world.

“We all prefer to have more money to spend, but the key is spending what you’ve got wisely. The primary thing we want is not for kids to feel good about themselves, but to be able to succeed. “

In response to another question from CapitolBeatOK, concerning alternative education, Gov. Bush commented, “Just like you in Oklahoma, we have a myriad of students. We’ve pressed for accountability, and if the accountability is student-based, the criteria you’ll be looking for is whether or not the kids are progressing.

“We’ve managed to make our system more focused on kids, and more open to varied ways of teaching. The key in alternative education is to find the right environment for that kid who has trouble in a typical classroom setting. And that works both ways, because getting those kids into a different setting allows kids in the regular classrooms to get more of the attention they need.”

At various other points in his busy day in Oklahoma, Bush offered a variety of thoughts leavened with practical examples and success stories.

“In a competitive market, everybody does better. Accountability, competition, higher standards, higher achievement — it all works together,” Bush said. Considering differences in school district numbers in the two states (Florida has only one for each county), Bush said, “That’s something you have to argue through. But what’s really essential is that regardless of your system, your structure, that there’s an overlay of expectations for achievement, an overlay of reform systems that press you forward, that keep the focus on a child-centered organizational system.

“In contrast, if you are or remain system-centered, not child-centered, there will be multiple and significant barriers to achievement. “

While in the Sooner State, Gov. Bush also gave a boost to Janet Barresi, an Oklahoma City charter school founder who won the Republican nomination for state superintendent of public instruction, in an early morning event. Dr. Barresi faces state Sen. Susan Paddack, an Ada Democrat, in the November general election.

Bush paid for his trip, including air travel and a hotel, he told reporters. In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Bush said he took the opportunity of proximity to stop in and visit a friend while at the state Capitol, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry.

In appearances before different groups, Bush repeated a phrase which has made him wildly popular in pro-choice circles, where patience is a virtue: “Reform needs to be a process, not an event. Success if never final, and reform is never complete.”