Last spring, it looked like the Oklahoma state legislature was going to reject a school-choice bill to provide vouchers for learning-disabled students. Earl Sears, a Republican, announced his opposition on May 19 — a bad blow, because Sears is a former principal and several of his GOP colleagues take their cues from him on education.
Around 9:30 p.m. the next night, Sears’s phone rang. Jeb Bush was calling. “Excuse me, you mean the governor Jeb Bush of Florida?” asked Sears. The two men didn’t know each other and had not spoken previously, but they talked for 35 minutes. Bush urged Sears to support the bill, pointing out that an almost identical piece of legislation had become a successful law in Florida. “I tell you, he made an impact on me,” said Sears on the morning of May 21, when he described the conversation in a speech to fellow lawmakers. He switched his vote from no to yes. Hours later, the bill passed. “We couldn’t have done it without Sears,” says Brandon Dutcher of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank. “So it’s safe to say that we couldn’t have done it without Jeb Bush.”
Pundits continue to wonder whether this son and brother of presidents ever will seek the White House for himself. While they speculate, Jeb is quietly building a legacy as something other than the Bush who didn’t reach the Oval Office. Governors everywhere boast of a desire to become “the education governor.” As Florida’s chief executive, Bush really was one — and not merely one among many, but by far the best. In 1999, when he took office, Florida schools were some of America’s worst. “We were bumping along the bottom,” says Bush. Today, almost a dozen years since Bush pushed through his first package of reforms, Florida is soaring near the top. On January 11, Education Week released its annual report on public schools and ranked Florida’s fifth-best in the nation. Four months earlier, the American Legislative Exchange Council had ranked them third-best. It’s a striking advance — and one that may improve schooling across the United States if Bush succeeds in his post-gubernatorial mission of exporting Florida’s reforms to other states.
John Ellis Bush is just now turning 58 — younger than his father and older than his brother when they entered the White House. He stands six-foot-four and works from a modest ground-floor office with a drop-tile ceiling beside the palatial Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla. His desk is a drafting table without a chair. “I don’t sit much,” he says. “I’m always moving around.”
He was in a hurry from the start. Bush earned a degree from the University of Texas in two and a half years and married his wife when he was 21. She’s from Mexico; he’s fluent in Spanish. His early career was spent in banking, including a stint in Venezuela.
He eventually settled in Miami, where he and his wife enjoyed the area’s Hispanic vibe. Bush worked in real estate and soon entered the family business of politics. In 1987, he became Florida’s secretary of commerce. The experience introduced him to his adopted state’s education challenges. “Every time I would try to recruit a company or go to a chamber-of-commerce meeting, I saw the direct link between the business climate and the workforce,” says Bush. “Taxes and regulation are important, but long-term prosperity is all about the quality of education.”
By the early 1990s, Jeb’s future looked bright. Many in the Bush clan saw him, rather than George W., as the most likely to reach high political office. Both brothers ran for governorships in 1994, challenging Democratic incumbents. Jeb was the favorite in Florida and George was the underdog in Texas. Election Night, however, delivered a shock. George won handily and Jeb lost in a squeaker. When their father called the victor in Austin, all he wanted to talk about was Jeb’s fate. “Why do you feel bad about Jeb?” asked the future 43rd president. “Why don’t you feel good about me?”
The election wasn’t rough just on the elder Bush. Jeb’s immediate family also suffered — not from the defeat as much as from his long absences leading up to it. “Had he been elected, it is doubtful whether his family would have stayed together,” wrote Peter and Rochelle Schweizer in The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty. Jeb converted to his wife’s Catholicism and started to make a point of being home for dinner.
Yet he didn’t give up his political ambitions. Bush started the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a policy group. He also prepared himself to be a better candidate. During his failed campaign, he had called for the elimination of Florida’s education department. Four years later, when he ran again for governor, he abandoned this rhetoric. “His philosophy didn’t change,” says Brian Yablonski, who went on to become Bush’s policy director. “He just did a better job of putting out a positive vision of what a world with less government would look like.” Bush outlined the “A+ Plan for Education” and described his proposals in elaborate detail. There’s a wonky side to Bush — “I’m such a nerdball,” he admits — and it comes across in any conversation about policy as he floats between broad principles and precise minutiae. On education, his approach mixed greater accountability for schools with more choices for parents. When he won an easy election in 1998, he had a mandate to pursue drastic reform.
As governor, Bush embraced “Big Hairy Audacious Goals,” or BHAGs (pronounced “bee-hags”) — a term he picked up from reading an article in Harvard Business Review. He cut taxes by more than $19 billion, stashed nearly $8 billion into rainy-day reserves, and cut 13,000 state jobs as he privatized everything from toll-road collection to the leasing agencies for government offices. During his second inaugural address, Bush explained his purpose: “There would be no greater tribute to our maturity as a society than if we can make these buildings around us empty of workers, silent monuments to the time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill.” He maintained that the government shouldn’t provide any services that are already advertised in the Yellow Pages.
If nothing else, Bush’s actions invigorated his foes. Labor activists ignored Florida’s strong job growth and protested the privatization of state jobs. Liberal civil-rights groups gave Bush little credit for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the capitol and railed against his decision to eliminate racial preferences in college admissions and public contracting. A pair of state senators even invaded Bush’s suite of offices and held a sit-in. “Kick their asses out,” demanded Bush, who later explained that he was referring to the reporters who showed up to cover the stunt. He also coped with the aftermath of the controversial 2000 presidential election, when his brother’s White House hopes came down to the votes of a few hundred Floridians.
When Bush’s two terms were over, the St. Petersburg Times called him “the most marched-on governor in the state’s history.” Bush smiles at the line. “You don’t want people to dislike you, but it didn’t bother me a bit,” he says. “It meant that we were doing stuff.” Most Floridians liked what they saw. Over eight years, Bush’s approval ratings averaged 58 percent and peaked near the end of his second term at 64 percent, according to the Miami Herald.
Florida’s schools engaged Bush’s attention right away. It was obvious that he had to do something. In 1998, the year of his first election, 46 percent of the state’s fourth-graders couldn’t read. Only the District of Columbia and Hawaii had significantly worse rates of illiteracy. “The key to Bush’s success is that he didn’t seize on a single reform idea,” says Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform. “He pursued a bunch of them at once.” Within months of entering office, Bush had signed sweeping legislation. In its wake, students took annual achievement tests that emphasized basics so that educators could measure their progress — or lack of it. Schools earned letter grades based on student performance, creating competitive pressure for improvement. Kids in schools that received failing marks on their new report cards could obtain vouchers for use at public or private institutions. The theory was simple, according to Bush: “You align incentives toward things you want more of and have different consequences for things you want less of. It reeks of common sense, but it’s a radical idea for government.”
More innovations followed. Florida ended the practice of social promotion for third-graders, meaning that kids now advance to the fourth grade only when they’re ready for it. This is an important threshold because fourth grade is when students shift from learning to read toward reading to learn. As the policy kicked in, the retention rate jumped from 3 percent to 13 percent. Kathleen Shanahan, Bush’s chief of staff, says that she worried about the political fallout. Would the angry parents of held-back third-graders revolt? “I asked the governor if we could put it off until after his reelection, but he refused. He said it was the right thing to do and so we were going to do it.”
Bush also pressed for school choice. More than 20,000 learning-disabled students now take advantage of McKay Scholarships, which are vouchers that they can redeem at private schools. Another 32,000 kids, all from low-income families, receive scholarships through a corporate tax-credit program. Most attend religious schools. In the next few years, participation may balloon to 80,000 children. “We have more school choice in Florida than anywhere on the planet,” boasts Bush.
At first, the gains were incremental. “Every year, we’d hold a press conference and talk about the steady progress in elementary schools, but the media always wanted to focus on middle-school students because their scores weren’t going up,” says Patricia Levesque, a deputy chief of staff who now runs Bush’s policy group. Then, in Bush’s last year in office, the middle-school scores finally jumped. Levesque attributes the improvement to “Bush babies” — the kids who had gone through elementary schools energized by Bush’s reforms were reaching the upper grades. “You’ve got to be patient with these things,” says Bush. “The people who cover politics — the people who are in it — are quick to want to change course.”
Along the way, Bush suffered a few setbacks. Teacher unions couldn’t block most of his agenda, but they passed a few proposals of their own, including ballot initiatives to limit class sizes and create a system of universal preschool. Bush opposed both as costly and ineffective. In 2006, Florida’s high court struck down the law that provided private-school vouchers for students in rotten public schools. Bush tried to amend the state constitution but couldn’t persuade his legislature to cooperate. Today, he insists that his short-lived voucher plan made a difference: “The threat of vouchers had a big impact — only a few hundred kids received them and they changed how tens of thousands of students learn.” Florida’s tax-credit scholarships continue to flourish. Research by David Figlio and Cassandra M. D. Hart of Northwestern University, published in the current issue of Education Next, suggests that their existence has forced public schools to improve.
When Bush left office four years ago, it was clear that his reforms were working. The results are even more obvious now. By almost any measure, Florida’s schools have gone from among the worst in the country to among the best. The percentage of fourth-graders who can’t read dropped from 46 percent in 1998 to 27 percent in 2009 (the last year for which numbers are available). One of the best measures of success didn’t appear until recently. “It was an ‘aha moment’ for us,” says Bush. Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona think tank, combed through Florida’s racial and ethnic subgroup data. He discovered that the typical Florida Hispanic either beats or ties the average of all students in 31 states on fourth-grade reading tests. The typical Florida black matches or outperforms the average student in eight states. “His approach was ingenious,” says Bush. “It shows that compassion is not about how much money you spend but about the results you get — and these are great results.”
Now Bush is trying to export Florida’s results to other states. “Education needs to be a national priority, but not a federal program,” he says. Bush visits capitals, delivers PowerPoint presentations to public officials and business leaders, and isn’t above making a strategic phone call on the eve of a critical vote. “It’s great to have someone who has walked this road,” says Leslie Hiner of the Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indiana-based group started by Milton and Rose Friedman. “He can describe what happens, answer questions, and make school choice come alive.”
Several states are now trying to remake their school systems in Florida’s image, at least in part. Oklahoma copied Florida’s voucher program for special-needs children. Arizona, Indiana, and Louisiana are giving letter grades to schools. Arizona, Indiana, and Utah have halted the social promotion of third-graders. The environment for additional reforms in 2011 and beyond is excellent. Following last year’s elections, there are 29 Republican governors as well as 25 states in which Republicans control the legislature — and more Republican elected officials around the country than at any time since Calvin Coolidge was president. In New Mexico, new governor Susana Martinez has tapped former Bush aide Hanna Skandera as her education secretary. In Nevada, new governor Brian Sandoval described his agenda in a state-of-the-state address on January 24. The section on education is ripped from the Florida playbook: grading schools, ending social promotion, and creating more choice through vouchers. “Jeb Bush is a case study in how to stay relevant when you’re out of office,” says Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “He’s a policy entrepreneur.”
Late in his governorship, Bush reactivated the Foundation for Florida’s Future. Then he started a sister organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which focuses on reforms outside the Sunshine State. “I regard it as a do tank, not a think tank,” says Bush. In 2008, it began to sponsor a national conference on education reform. The 2010 gathering, held a week after Thanksgiving in Washington, D.C., attracted more than 550 legislators, superintendents, scholars, and activists. The state education chiefs of Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Virginia used it as a venue for announcing the advent of Chiefs for Change, a reform-minded group. The Foundation for Excellence in Education provides staff support and Bush is helping it raise money. “Jeb is a leader,” says Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s superintendent of education. “We’re modeling a lot of what we do on what Florida has done.”
Bush’s latest enthusiasm is digital learning. In December, with former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, a Democrat, he released a report on how states can take advantage of the revolution in technology. “We’re doing everything the same way we were 50 or even 100 years ago, with seat time, three months off, and a teacher who stands in front of kids,” says Bush. “Digital learning is the fastest way to change all of that — and the unions see it as an even bigger threat than vouchers because it’s such a disruptive idea.” Bush envisions a system in which students receive customized instruction via adaptive software, possibly delivered by for-profit companies and across state lines without regard to old-fashioned methods of teacher certification. “We have a shortage of math and science teachers, but we also have excellent math and science teachers,” says Bush. “We can create a repository of rich content, deliver it to homes and classrooms, and allow kids to learn at their own pace.” In the future, he believes, children will have the opportunity to take Advanced Placement courses in Mandarin Chinese even if they live in the hills of Kentucky and have to learn from teachers in San Francisco.
The lessons apply to other areas as well. “With the tools at my disposal, I can do the work of three or four Jebs of 1990,” says Bush. “Yet government and the things we ask government to do are mired in the middle of the 20th century.” He cites health care as an example: “We’ve created a whole system based on a policy of employer-provided insurance that was maybe useful in 1950. The result is that people aren’t engaged in their own health, they don’t know the price of anything, and there’s no market.” The approach of President Obama is fundamentally wrong, says Bush: “He should have taken a pause and figured out what health care should look like. Instead, he asked for a monstrosity that locks an old model in place.”
It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to picture Bush saying such things on the campaign trail. In January, National Journal released its latest “Insiders Poll.” In it, Democrats ranked Bush as the GOP’s third-strongest potential presidential nominee in 2012 (after Mitt Romney and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana). They apparently see Bush’s last name as less of a liability than some Republicans do. When I asked Bush whether there’s any chance he’ll run for president in 2012, he was blunt: “No.” How about taking on Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat? Again: “No.” So what about 2016? “I sure hope a Republican is running for reelection then,” he said. “But I’ve learned never to say never.” Then he added: “Right now, I still have a voice and I intend to use it.”