Politics & Policy

Bright in the Sunshine State

Florida's effective education reforms.

Recently, education reformers from across the country descended on Orlando to attend an education reform summit organized by the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the James Madison Institute. The conference examined the need to reduce achievement gaps and improve opportunities for all children, and highlighted promising reform strategies like holding schools accountable for results and expanding school choice.

A focus of the event was Florida’s pioneering education reforms which have proven to boost student achievement. Former Governor Jeb Bush serves as the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and hosted the event. Governor Bush kindly agreed to discuss the topic with Dan Lips.

NRO: Governor Bush, you and others have warned that the United States faces serious challenges in the twenty-first century with the rise of globalization and increased international competition. What message do you think parents and students need to hear to be prepared for the future?

Governor Bush: Our students are no longer just competing with students in other states across the nation. They are competing with their peers around the world. Countries like China, Sweden, and Singapore are focusing on tomorrow’s economy and placing a premium on education and innovation to ensure they can keep pace with their rivals. For decades, America set that pace, and now we are falling behind.

We need all schools — here in Florida and in 49 other states — to get better for our country’s future. The only way to improve student performance is through continual and perpetual reform of education. America needs a 21st century education system for a 21st century world.

NRO: In your opening remarks at the conference, you said that our education system is like “an 8-track system living in an iPod world”? What changes do you think need to be made to bring our education system into the 21st century?

Governor Bush: I believe we are at a tipping point. We can build a world class education system through bigger and bolder reform – higher standards, more school choice, pay for performance, harnessing technology, and stronger accountability. If we give into complacency, we will cede our role as a global powerhouse.

NRO: In the area of education reform, no state has implemented bolder reforms than Florida did under your leadership. A decade later, are you seeing results in Florida’s classrooms?

Governor Bush: Since the introduction of accountability, high standards, and school choice nearly a decade ago, Florida has seen rising student achievement. Recent test scores show our students continue to make gains in reading and math and now outpace the national average of their peers across the country — in both subjects at every grade level. Today, approximately three quarters of Florida’s students are reading and performing math on grade level, compared to barely half of our students in 2001. This year, the Goldwater Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arizona, took a closer look at education reform in Florida and found that our state’s low-income Hispanic students are actually outperforming the general student population in several states, including the Grand Canyon State.

Florida has made incredible gains during the last decade, but there is so much work left to do. We still have students left behind in failing schools. We are narrowing the achievement gap, but not quickly enough. Too many students graduating from Florida high schools are not prepared for the rigors of college or the workforce.

NRO: What do you think made the difference? Which of the policies that you championed — from setting standards and measuring performance to ending social promotion and expanding school-choice options for families — do you think made the most difference?

Governor Bush: Raising standards, measuring progress, grading school performance, providing educational options and targeting resources to reward success and reverse failure are all tools that are transforming schools and raising student achievement.

However, success is never final. I hope we never stop trying to implement more innovative and audacious reforms.

NRO: What types of reforms do you hope to see continued and expanded in Florida moving forward?

Governor Bush: In terms of existing education reforms, I hope Florida continues to serve as a model for high standards, accountability and school choice.

Moving forward, I hope bold education reform continues in Florida and across the nation. I believe we need more rigorous and relevant curricula in our middle and high schools to better prepare our students. We also need a much greater emphasis on math and science in this country. We can no longer assume we can import our talent and still remain competitive in the global economy.

I also believe we need to better apply free-market principles to the way we deliver education in order to improve the entire system. We should expand educational options so all parents can make the best choices for their children. Teachers and principals should be paid based on performance. Educators that teach subjects with a shortage of teachers, teach in low-performing schools or carry increased responsibilities should be paid more. We should also give merit pay to teachers based on student learning gains and other objective measures.

NRO: In November, Florida voters will consider a proposal to repeal the state’s Blaine Amendment, which has been an obstacle to some school choice proposals. Do you expect that effort to succeed?

Governor Bush: I’m hopeful Floridians will support repealing the Blaine Amendment — an antiquated religious discrimination clause rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry. We need to protect and expand access to high-quality public services, especially education, regardless of the religious affiliation of the entity that provides the service.

NRO: This conference featured prominent leaders from across the political spectrum including Mayor Bloomberg, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, and Former Governor Roy Romer. Do you think there is an opportunity to build greater bipartisan support for reforms that hold schools accountable and give parents the power to choose the best school for their children?

Governor Bush: Absolutely. Just last week, I signed on to support the Education Equality Project, a bipartisan initiative launched by New York City public schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton to advocate for reform to close the achievement gap in our country.

People from across the ideological spectrum can agree that improving the quality of education for students from every background, from pre-K through high school, is the great challenge of our time. We need to put partisan rhetoric aside and work together to raise student achievement through reforms that produce measurable results.

NRO: Moving forward, what are your plans for the Foundation for Excellence in Education? What message are you hoping to share with people from around the country?

Governor Bush: Our success in preparing students to successfully compete with their peers from countries around the world will determine our future in the new global economy. To that end, we launched the new Foundation last year to identify, foster and replicate excellence in education on a national scale.

Bringing together experts and policymakers from across the country to address the critical need to improve our schools was an important first step. When we look back a year from now, or five years from now, I hope we can say our summit served as a catalyst for accelerating and energizing the reform movement.

NRO: Governor Bush, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. And thank you for your ongoing leadership on this important issue.

 – Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.


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