July | August 2017

Education is a ‘National Crisis’

By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
After former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush left office in 2007, he founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, whose mission is “to ignite a movement of reform, state by state, to transform education for the 21st century.” Bush serves as chairman of the nonpartisan organization based in Tallahassee, Fla.

As a former governor, what was the most frustrating thing you found in
making real change in education?

“The most frustrating thing was to hear stories from high school graduates struggling with remedial courses because Florida’s K-12 system had failed them—we had failed them. It was frustrating because these were precious lives whose opportunity for success was hampered through no fault of their own. Their stories also reminded me why we were pushing for real change. It encouraged me to remain bold and focused on reform.”

Discuss the challenges and successes in education in Florida while you were
governor and what other states can learn from that.

“While governor, I had the honor of helping develop and implement a plan to reverse a generation of decline in our state and brighten the futures of countless students.
“We adopted the A+ Plan during my first year as governor. In that year, Florida transitioned to a data-driven accountability model that grades schools A-F—just like students. Basing school grades on objective measures of student performance and progress better informs parents, school leaders and community leaders on the true state of learning. Today, seven other states and New York City have adopted an A-F school grading system.
“A few years later, we ended the damaging practice of social promotion in the third grade and started focusing on ensuring every third-grade student enters fourth grade with critical reading skills. In 1998, almost half of Florida’s fourth-graders were functionally illiterate. Today, Florida’s fourth-graders are above the national average in reading, and Florida’s Hispanic fourth-grade students are on par with their peers in 21 other states. As a large and demographically diverse state, Florida continues to serve as an example of how standards and accountability lead to higher achievement.”

The Foundation for Excellence in Education has an ambitious reform agenda
for education. What is the basis for reforms suggested by the agenda?

“We believe all students can learn given the right opportunities. A child’s ZIP code, race or parents’ salary should not define his or her capability to learn. Whether we’re pushing for rigorous academic standards, standardized measurement, data-based accountability, outcome-based funding or school choice, it all comes back to helping ensure all children have a high-quality learning environment and the opportunity to reach their God-given potential.”

With so much polarization in politics and government today, do you think a
bipartisan solution to the education problem is possible and why?

“I do. Our children’s education should not be a political issue. It is a national crisis and it requires a bold response—I don’t think many will disagree with that. We must act on behalf of America’s next generation, advancing reforms that result in systemic change in our schools, our districts and our states. In a changing world filled with careers that increasingly require higher levels of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, we have to put kids first.”

What is the biggest challenge for education reform today?

“America is falling far behind other countries in the race for knowledge. Our biggest challenge is transforming our education system with new, higher academic standards and preparing the nation for a new bar.
“Our nation’s students rank 21st in science and 24th in math among 30 industrialized nations. We are not producing enough engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, information technology specialists, welders … and the list goes on, largely because too many students leave high school without the foundational skills to pursue these careers.
“Consider the innovations and inventions that will never be discovered. Consider the billions and billions of dollars of productivity our country will never experience because students were unprepared by their schools. Consider the incredible loss of human capital and the toll it will take on our society. By working to ensure every student has access to the learning experience that equips them with knowledge and skills for success, our youngest generation will be able to flood this nation with an unprecedented show of human potential.”

The Obama administration seems to be willing to fill the gap left by the inaction
on reauthorization of the federal education act with innovative processes.
What do you think about that approach? Has it helped states improve

“Thanks in part to reforms passed a decade ago in (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), student achievement across the nation has improved. (The act) should be reauthorized. Given Washington’s inaction, Secretary (Arne) Duncan has tried to establish a process to provide regulatory relief to states that have adopted high standards, school accountability, interventions for failing schools and other policies that are proven to improve student achievement. It is critical that the bar for receiving these waivers be kept high—rewarding states that are advancing real reform.”

What do you think of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top?

“Putting aside the issue of spending funds our country does not have, Race to the Top and its emphasis on data, teacher quality, improved teacher evaluations and turning around low-performing schools created an environment that encouraged states to adopt good policies.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since a blue-ribbon commission released the Nation
at Risk report detailing the inadequacies of American public education. As you
think about that report, what has been the biggest disappointment in terms of
opportunities missed?

“Today, we advocate for many of the recommendations we saw back in the ’80s in that report—things like vouchers and tuition tax credits. Progress has been made, but an underwhelming amount, given the almost 30 years since. I think we can always do better in providing more options, and we’re still lacking as a nation in terms of offering a customized education.”

What do you think were positive outcomes of that report?

“It was a wakeup call, plain and simple. It was a shock for most to hear—to hear that our education system was ‘being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.’ But, it led to the discussion we’re still having today and our continued push for a better education for our nation’s young people.”

Who do you see as national leaders in education?

“Governors, state education chiefs and lawmakers across the country are showing leadership as they pursue bold education reforms in their states. Chiefs for Change, a coalition of state education chiefs who are adopting and implementing reform, have also emerged as national leaders.”

How can states make improvements in education while continuing to face
budget shortfalls, which are now reaching into the education budgets?

“While funding is important, how you spend it is more important than how much you spend. We should prioritize funding for reforms and reward achievement. Florida is a great example of using funding for proven programs and reforms: A-F school grading, rewards for results, promotion and graduation requirements, funding for student success and student choice.
“A recent report in Education Next, a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution and the Harvard Kennedy School, actually plotted test score gains against increments in spending between 1990 and 2009. Just about as many high-spending states showed relatively small gains as those which showed large gains, and many states showed gains while committing very little additional resources.”