Jeb Bush Leads Broad Push for Education Change With 'Florida Formula'

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ST. PAUL -- With the dust settling on legislative sessions around the country, 2011 is shaping up as one of the most consequential years in memory for changes in the way schools are run.

The new policies have many champions, but a little-known common denominator behind sweeping measures in nearly a dozen states is Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has re-emerged as an adviser to governors and lawmakers, mostly Republicans, who are interested in imitating what he calls "the Florida formula" for education.

Mr. Bush, for example, has been closely involved in new education bills and laws in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah. One out of five state school superintendents have joined a group that his national foundation created, Chiefs for Change, to rally behind a common agenda.

He has hopped around the country to campaign for candidates, hold meetings and lobby for Florida-style changes. They include private-school vouchers, online courses and requiring third-graders to pass reading tests before they move up to fourth grade, rather than being pushed along with their peers -- or "social promotion."

"We're the only state to have eliminated social promotion in the third grade in a robust way," Mr. Bush said Tuesday in an appearance in the Capitol here, urging the Legislature's new Republican majorities to be bold.

He came to support measures introduced after 30 Minnesota lawmakers, mostly freshmen Republicans, had attended a Washington summit meeting in December organized by Mr. Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The nonprofit group received contributions of $2.9 million in 2009, from the foundations of Bill Gates and Eli Broad, among others, and for-profit education technology companies.

"Jeb Bush gives voice to those who want to change the system," said State Representative Pat Garofalo, a Republican who is chairman of the Minnesota House education finance panel.

With a new Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, looking for common ground, Mr. Garofalo predicted, "you've got what's going to be a very good session for education reform in Minnesota."

The most complete adoption of Mr. Bush's approach has been in Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels's education talking points in his State of the State speech closely echoed a mission statement of Mr. Bush's foundation.

"We were able to really use many of their policy positions and implement many of their policies to drive pieces of our reform agenda," said Tony Bennett, Indiana's schools superintendent.

Mr. Bush, 58, scoffs at the idea of running for the office that both his brother and father held.

Still, his name gives him extra appeal among state politicians -- "the Jeb cocktail," as Jay P. Greene, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas, put it. "Jeb Bush lurks out there as a potential presidential candidate some day," he added.

Although Mr. Bush mostly collaborates with Republicans, there is bipartisan support for elements of his ideas in some places, including the Obama administration. He and President Obama made a joint appearance at a Miami school last month.

And Mr. Bush has teamed up with a former Democratic governor of West Virginia, Bob Wise, to promote online education.

"I watched him at a function in Orlando with educators ranging from classroom teachers to academicians, and he held his own at every level," Mr. Wise said. "This is someone spending his time on education because he believes passionately in it."

Mr. Bush said that although he was a "head-banging, limited-government conservative," education was one area that needed not be so ideological. "I'm not running for anything," he said in an interview. "These are long-term strategies and take patience to get the results we need as a nation. I have a background from which I can express my views."

His influence derives from his two terms starting in 1999, during which Florida elementary school pupils began achieving significantly higher test scores. Whether his policies were entirely responsible is debated by experts.

Mr. Bush put in place many new policies, often over strong objections from teachers' unions. One change, offering private-school vouchers to students in public schools that earned failing grades on the state's A-to-F report card, was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. (Two narrower voucherlike programs remain.)

In Minnesota, Mr. Bush cited the improvement of Florida fourth-graders on national reading tests. They progressed from below the national average in 1992 to above in 2009 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Hispanic fourth-graders read better than the average of all students in 31 other states.

David Figlio, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, said that because of Florida's accountability measures, which are more nuanced than the national No Child Left Behind standards, "early-year literacy and numeracy skills seem to be improving, especially for schools that serve disadvantaged populations."

But that progress erodes as students age. By eighth grade, Florida students begin to lose their advantage on the NAEP, and by 12th grade, they fall behind national averages.

"If kids graduated from fourth grade, I think he would have been an unqualified success," said Sherman Dorn, an education professor at the University of South Florida.

Skeptics point out that other changes could explain the improvements in test scores. In 2002, voters passed one of the nation's most ambitious class-size reduction plans, over the objections of Mr. Bush. School financing, including for reading coaches, also rose.

"Don't you think maybe those things had more to do with improvements than grading schools A through F?" said Representative Mindy Greiling, the ranking Democrat on the Minnesota House education finance panel, who calls the Florida-style changes favored by Republicans in her state "rinky-dink."

"I don't know why they're so enamored with him or with Florida," Ms. Greiling said of Mr. Bush.

The former governor countered that the gains began before class-size reductions. In the Capitol, he displayed a chart showing that while Minnesota's fourth-grade reading scores on the national test had been flat for years, Florida's had climbed.

"That's not because of the sunshine," he said.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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