Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida says Oklahoma is one of two states – Indiana being the other – actively deliberating the most comprehensive and meaningful education policy reforms in 2011.
Asked to name the most significant change or set or changes that led to improved student performance in his state, Bush said school grading and introduction of varied choice mechanisms had, in tandem with other reforms, triggered Florida’s Renaissance.
Bush spoke at a Blue Room press conference arranged by Governor Mary Fallin. Other speakers included Governor Fallin, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, Speaker of the House Kris Steele, and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman.
When members of the Capitol press corps had an opportunity for questions, Bush was specific in his reflections.
CapitolBeatOK asked Bush what one or two reforms — or “cluster” of reforms — made the most difference in changing educational outcomes in Florida. In response, he first joked that he did not use the term of “cluster” but preferred to describe the cumulative ideas in the Sunshine State as a “suite of reforms.”
Turning serious, the former chief executive of Florida said that the impetus for change began in his first year with “the introduction of accountability ” in the form of letter grades for individual schools. That reform brought new levels of transparency and accountability to the system, especially in combination with incentives for improvements in performance. When “under performing schools suddenly became “schools with a grade of D or F,” voters understood, Bush said.
The next essential step was weaving in choice programs for children in the worst schools, including a voucher system that was later ruled unconstitutional. He noted that tighter reading programs with “reading coaches and teachers” yielded data that then led to a proposal to ban “social promotions” from third to fourth grade.
He said the elements of competition and pressure for excellence that came from choice had, in conjunction with the other changes, brought undeniable progress. On standardized test results, Bush said, Florida is now sixth out of 50 states in fourth grade reading performance. Before introduction of his “suite” of reforms, the state was in the bottom half.
After sketching that “suite,” he added, “the critics were proven wrong about fundamental reform.” Bottom line, Bush contends, “low income kids in Florida are leading the nation in learning.”
Introducing Bush, Fallin said he had a “long track record of implementing bold policies of education reform.” In his speech, which served as centerpiece of the Blue Room event, Bush pointed to data points he considered essential to understanding the necessity for education reform.
First, on international test scores and measurements, the United States rests at the bottom or, in some cases, the middle of the pack. In the most recent assessments he cited, Shanghai was in first place. In second or third position in such measurements, he said, are Hong Kong, Singapore or South Korea. Bush reflected, “The world is passing us by.”
Second, the average income of college graduates in the U.S. is $50,000. The average income for high school graduates, Bush reported, is “less than half of that.” He summarized his point this way: “The gap between haves and have-nots is directly related to educational attainment.”
Bush repeatedly praised Oklahoma for pressing on what he called comprehensive strategies. He promised, “You can move the needle, if you stick with it.” Speaking to Fallin, he reflected, “It was cool being governor,” but that he was sometimes frustrated because, “there is not a lobbyist for higher student achievement.”
In response to a question about the push for Florida-style reforms around the nation, Bush commented, “These are not Florida reforms. They are common sense reforms. There’s no trademark or licensing fee. These ideas are being implemented across the nation.” He predicted Oklahoma and Indiana, the two he considers most serious about reform ideas this year, have the potential to “catapult past many of the other states.”
Echoing points made by Superintendent Barresi, Bush said that “accurate student performance data” drove the ban on social promotions. He returned to the importance of the social promotion ban more than once, stating that the state’s percentage of third grade students not reading at grade level was 30-31% when the reform was implemented, but dropped to “the teens” within a year. Bush said continued pressure for excellence is essential, because a performance “bump like that” needs to be “something that lasts.”
Bush came to the Sooner State for meetings with Republican legislators and as keynote speaker for the Citizenship Dinner of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Wednesday evening.