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Jeb Bush touts Florida school reforms to Capitol’s supportive GOP, skeptical DFL

Jeb Bush spent about an hour on Tuesday walking legislators through a presentation outlining his education efforts.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Jeb Bush spent about an hour on Tuesday walking legislators through a presentation outlining his education efforts.

In terms of style, Jeb Bush, an invited legislative visitor today at the state Capitol, could not be less like his older brother.

The former Florida governor is funny, poised and speaks in complete sentences that make him seem simultaneously smart and self-effacing. His constituency has mushroomed since he left office three and a half years ago, and when his political bedfellows use the word “legacy” in conjunction with his name, it’s in the positive sense.

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are virtually unanimous in calling George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act a wholesale failure. Jeb Bush, by contrast, is in hot demand among conservative education reformers who are seeding statehouses from coast to coast with copycat legislation.

Possibly most infuriating to the former president, if he’s watching: When confronted by bothersome questions about his record, Little Brother literally waves one hand, reasserts the truth as he sees it — and gets away with it.

This morning, as the ink was still drying on the first Bush reform bill filed in the Minnesota Legislature, the former governor testified before lawmakers at the request of Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R-Buffalo) and her counterpart, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, a Maple Grove Republican.

Bush rips Minnesota achievement gap
Minnesota may have a proud history of prioritizing education, he told lawmakers, but it’s doing a lousy job closing the achievement gap. They should consider enacting some of Florida’s education reforms, which include an end to social promotion, a school-grading system, financial incentives for schools and teachers, alternative teacher certification and vouchers.

Bush spent about an hour walking legislators through a PowerPoint presentation that outlined his education efforts and dramatic increases in student test scores between 1999, the year he took office, and 2009, two years after he left.

In 1998, for instance, 47 percent of Florida fourth-graders could not read at grade level. In 2009, 27 percent lagged behind. “This is because there was a concerted, long-term strategy,” he explained. “Our success is because of a whole suite of reforms.”

That suite included assigning schools A to F letter grades, “incentivizing” high expectations by paying bonuses to schools that better their grades and to teachers whose students pass Advanced Placement tests. Other changes include offering vouchers to kids whose schools earned an F two years in a row and holding back third-graders who did not pass state reading exams.

Bush told the lawmakers that he knew they were probably squeamish about this last item, the topic of the brand-new bill modeled on his reforms, but urged them to consider the evils of so-called social promotion.

“My personal opinion is that American kids are fine in terms of self-esteem,” he said. “I am not as worried about self-esteem as I am that they’re illiterate.”

Minnesota’s test scores, he warned, have been flat over the last 12 years while Florida’s have risen steadily.

DFLers find flaws with Florida results
After the hearing, DFL lawmakers hastened to point out that Bush’s presentation did not include slides detailing data that would have punctured his case. For example, he did not explain that some academic researchers have warned that Florida’s practice of holding back struggling third-graders taints its fourth-grade gains.

According to a Boston College researcher, Florida has been forcing unprecedented numbers of minority pupils to repeat third grade, on the order of 10 to 12 percent, meaning that fewer low-scoring students enter grade 4 at the normal age.

The same study found that two to three times as many minority children as white children are forced to repeat third grade, which likely explains the decrease in Florida’s race-based score gap.

Nor did Bush talk about the state’s abysmal eighth-grade test scores, which he proudly asserted were “about average” nationwide. He freely admitted Florida’s high school graduation rate of 67 percent “still sucks” but insisted it’s better than the 50 percent rate that prevailed when he was elected.

For the record, Minnesota’s 86 percent graduation rate is the nation’s third-highest; Florida ranks 44th. Minnesota tops the nation in ACT scores, while Florida comes in 25th.

Democrats also pointed out that Bush attributed some of his state’s success to reforms the Legislature’s current GOP leadership has torpedoed, including free, voluntary pre-K for all and a massive investment in early literacy instruction,

Bush had high praise for the Common Core Standards, a states-led initiative to ensure that academic achievement has the same definition everywhere. Several weeks ago, GOP legislative leaders inserted a provision in the Omnibus Education Finance Bill that would prevent Minnesota from adopting the standards, which they deem a step toward a “national curriculum.”

St. Paul Rep. Carlos Mariani, head of the DFL Education Reform Committee, noted that Bush also failed to mention a reform he opposed that could account for much of the progress: In 2002, Florida passed a constitutional amendment obliging the state legislature to provide funding to cap class-sizes at 18 students in pre-K through grade 3, 22 in grades 4 to 6 and 25 in grades 9 to 12.

Mariani called Bush’s appearance “a distraction” from issues that still loom large at the Capitol. “I just want to know when the Republicans are going to get serious,” he said. “It’s after break. When are they going to get to work?”

The GOP leaders who flanked Bush at the press conference that followed his testimony didn’t offer any comment on the contentious budget battle ahead, or the likelihood that, social promotion notwithstanding, their education package is headed for a veto.

“Gov. Bush took on the status quo,” Zellers said. “There was no political gain in it. He’s no longer governor. He’s not running for Senate. He’s just trying to help kids.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 04/26/2011 - 03:53 pm.

    Are there any Republicans in the legislature who are serious about anything? If so, what would it take for them to use their voice. This is just embarrassing.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/26/2011 - 04:44 pm.

    If Florida’s schools are among the worst in the country and Minnesota’s are among the best, why is Florida’s former governor speaking to Minnesota legislators about education? Its like having Brad Childress speak to the Packers about winning football games.

  3. Submitted by Ross Reishus on 04/26/2011 - 06:32 pm.

    uh, jobs jobs jobs? Where does this fit in? And since when are we taking any member of the Bush family seriously anymore? Unless they suddenly decided to turn states evidence against each other…that might be interesting. G.W. and Iran-Contra, Neil and the Savings and Loan scandal, George W…list too long for this post and now this guy? Pffft. He should be run out of town/state on a rail.

  4. Submitted by Penny Reynen on 04/26/2011 - 07:03 pm.

    Why in the world would Mminnesota legislators ask Jeb Bush for advice on education? I moved to Florida from Minnesota a year ago and I can tell you that the school systems are in trouble here. I do not see shining examples that would be better or informative for Minnesota schools. Bush can say what he wants, but numbers can be manipulated and students of color and those living in poverty are not given equal opportunity here. I have been an educator for forty years and I would not call on Jeb Bush for advice on how to make schools better.

  5. Submitted by Sandy Huseby on 04/26/2011 - 07:04 pm.

    Have the Republican legislators invited Randi Weingarten to their little tea party? Or just the family who profiteer off dumbing down American education?

  6. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 04/27/2011 - 07:09 am.

    What Jeb Bush and the Republicans are serious about is dismanteling MN’s public school system and turning it over to private schools – charters – and FL is the poster child for how to do it.

    Mr. Bush’s proposals are meant to fail public education. Now President Obama’s endorsment is bringing Gov. Bush’s education ideas to national attention. Gov. Bush, Arne Duncan, NCLB, makes me wonder about President Obama’s motivations.

    Two articles for consideration regarding the above: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/darling-hammond-us-vs-highest-achieving-nations-in-education/2011/03/22/ABkNeaCB_blog.html


  7. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 04/27/2011 - 08:08 am.

    How about fully funding all day kindergarten? It is penny wise and pound foolish to take a kid who is not ready for school and wait until 3rd grade to do any major interventions. Spend a little today to spend less tomorrow?

    Instead of helping our urban kindergarten students catch up at the beginning, the GOP is doing the exact opposite by cutting integration funds that pay for all day kindergarten. Why is Minnesota one of the few states that only pays for half day kindergarten, and then cuts funding that pays for those kids who need full day most (integration funds).

  8. Submitted by Addie Moe on 04/27/2011 - 11:00 am.

    From what I hear from friends who live in Florida, their schools are nothing to rave about. Why would anyone listen to someone who helped get them in that position?

  9. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 04/29/2011 - 06:01 am.

    Addie asks “why would anyone listen who helped get them in that position?” (ie the situation that friends tell her is “nothing to rave about.”
    1. Florida has made considerable progress in graduation rates.
    2. Florida has reduced the achievement gap between students of different races
    3. As Hawkins notes, Florida has steadily increased access to high quality early childhood education, and has used ratings to help families be better informed about quality early childhood programs.
    Those are some of the reasons. I don’t agree with all of Bush’s ideas (such as allowing public funds to follow students to k-12 private and parochial schools. But I think there are things to learn from Florida – and despite Hawkins coverage, so do Democrats. Rep Mindy Greiling, for example, praised the Governor’s efforts in early childhood education. I was in the room when she did it.

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