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From Florida to Michigan: Jeb Bush on Education Reform

Tom Walsh  

Former governor Jeb Bush visits a second grade class at Mater Academy Elementary School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida. Mater Academy Elementary is a K-5 public charter school that ranks as one of the top elementary schools in Miami Dade County. Photo courtesy of Foundation for Excellence in Education.

When he was Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007, Jeb Bush made education reform his top priority. Upon leaving office, he created the Foundation for Excellence in Education — a nonprofit working with state leaders to offer education solutions that increase student learning, advance equity, and enhance college and career readiness — which he still chairs.  

Today the former governor believes that boosting student achievement is more critical than ever – and he’ll be driving that message home as a speaker at the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference. 

Bush’s 1999 “A+ Plan” for education required testing of all students, graded all Florida public schools, and rewarded improvement with extra funding. Fourth grade reading scores increased markedly, and high school graduation rates have risen steadily. 

While proud of the progress, Bush warns that a high school diploma in 2019, in Florida or other states, does not mean that high school graduates are ready for college.  

According to Bush, for many students, the last two years of high school are not utilized well or made more relevant.  

I think the next iteration of reforms is ‘how do you create a real command focus on college readiness and career readiness?’”  

Bush has also been a steadfast proponent of school choice for parents, in the form of charter schools, private school vouchers, and online schools. 

Achieving consensus around bold new education strategies, however, is a tall order in today’s toxic political environment, he says. 

“Everything seems to be hyperpartisan, hyperpoliticized. I think the left-right coalitions for reform have eroded as part of that new political climate, so that creates a challenge for sure.”  

One hopeful area, he notes, is growing support among both Democratic and Republican governors for “career readiness” efforts to prepare students not only for the next stage of school, but for the next stage of life – modern jobs and career paths. 

Jeb Bush – Former Governor, State of Florida; Founder, President, and Chairman, Foundation for Excellence in Education

Michigan, a state hard-hit in recent decades by the disappearance of high-paying blue-collar manufacturing jobs that didn’t require post-high school education a generation ago, is fertile ground for such an approach. 

“The economy is in transition across country. States like Michigan have paid a heavy price because of industrial manufacturing base there was stronger, bigger, more important than in Florida and other states. How we educate and train is a high priority now across the country. And I think it’s an imperative in Michigan.”  

Six years ago, Bush addressed the 2013 Mackinac Policy Conference and was working with Michigan’s Legislature and then Gov. Rick Snyder on reform proposals like the school choice and fourth grade reading emphasis of the Florida “A+ Plan.”  

But change has been slow to come. Last year, Michigan ranked 33rd among the 50 states in Education Week’s annual rankings based on National Assessment of Educational Progress student test scores and other factors. A variation of one of Bush’s Florida initiatives from 15 years ago, the A-through-F grading of public schools, finally won approval by very narrow margins in Michigan’s lameduck legislative session last year during the final days of Snyder’s tenure, but has yet to be implemented. 

Major education changes for Michigan and many other states, Bush suggests, will require a breakthrough in the chronic pull-and-tug between would-be reformers and teachers’ unions. 

After 20 years in the education policy arena, Jeb Bush continues to soldier on, not because the battle will ever end or that total victory can ever be declared, but because the cause is too important to abandon. 

Tom Walsh is a former Detroit Free Press business editor and columnist.