A Year's Worth of Knowledge in a Year's Time

Report Political Process

A Year's Worth of Knowledge in a Year's Time

November 10, 1999 23 min read
The Honorable Jeb Bush

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.:

Welcome. I'm Ed Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation. Today, it's my very great honor and privilege to introduce a former member of The Heritage Foundation's Board of Trustees and one of the most innovative governors in our nation, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida.

Jeb Bush moved to Florida 20 years ago to start and then serve as president of a small real estate development company, now one of the largest full-service commercial real estate companies in South Florida. So, Governor Bush has a spectacularly successful background as a business entrepreneur.

Since arriving in Florida, Jeb has been active in civic and political affairs. He served as Florida's Secretary of Commerce under Governor Bob Martinez, promoting Florida's business climate worldwide. He ran as the Republican nominee for Governor in 1994, before winning in 1998. In addition, he has served as a volunteer with Miami Children's Hospital, the United Way of Dade County, and the Dade County Homeless Trust. He is a leader, therefore, in building civil society.

In 1995, Jeb Bush established the Foundation for Florida's Future, an organization that has worked to make an impact on public policy at the grassroots level. It was in his capacity as Chairman of that foundation that then-citizen Bush founded the Liberty City Charter School with the Urban League of Greater Miami.

Since his election last year, Governor Bush's first priority has been to create a world-class education system in Florida. His plan is the first plan in the nation to provide opportunity scholarships to any child in the state who attends a chronically failing school.

Today it's my very great pleasure to welcome Governor Jeb Bush back to his Washington home, The Heritage Foundation, to talk to us about his innovative and child-centered education plan. Governor Bush.

Governor Jeb Bush:

Thank you, Ed. It is great to be back at Heritage. In typical Heritage fashion, as Dr. Feulner and I were coming down by elevator, who should we meet but a head of state from another country, who is here seeking inspiration and nourishment, which is what Heritage provides for so many people here in Washington, around the country, and around the world.

Ideas really do have consequences, and if you stick with them and you believe in trying them, and you are creative--not just in the ideas themselves, but in how to implement them--good things can happen. That's what I learned in my relationship with The Heritage Foundation and, were it not for the fact that I was crazy enough to run for office and then was lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your point of view) to get elected, I'd still be here because I thoroughly enjoyed that time. But I'll tell you what: I enjoy being governor of the state of Florida a lot too.

I want to talk a little bit about our A+ Education Plan, because if you've read the papers, at least in my home state, you won't get a full understanding of what we've begun to do, because this is a journey that's only just started. The reason why we're doing it, first and foremost, is that not enough children in our state or in our country really learn. They don't get a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time; and so, over time, in increments not necessarily discernible to everybody, kids fall behind in school. They lose interest in learning. They don't connect what they do at school with the potential it offers their lives. And we have quiet little tragedies unfolding across our country.

In our state, only 52 percent of young people graduate from high school. Think of that. It's a sad number. Sixty percent of students in community college--where there's free admission and open enrollment--are taking remedial courses. They're taking high school English and math over again. We have to spend more money to do what we could have done the right way the first time. Moreover, fifty percent of fourth graders aren't able to read at grade level. Of our 60,000 ninth graders this year, one-third have a D or an F average. In our state, like most states, after children turn 16, education is no longer compulsory; and so, sadly, many quietly drop off the scene. This places enormous demands on government.

The impact on our society is great. People are unable to interact with one another because not every young person has developed the intellectual power that comes from knowledge--the ability to think an abstract thought; the sense of history and why it's important; or the ability to communicate correctly and appropriately, not only in English, but also in a second language.

So we decided to do something dramatic in the state of Florida. Our A+ Education Plan is based upon some guiding principles.

First, we have implemented measures for meaningful and undiluted accountability. For the public education system, there are now different consequences for success and failure. That must be one of the standard principles for any reform effort. There have to be different consequences when teachers do the right thing and children get a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time, and when it doesn't happen.

Second, we have zero tolerance for failure. Not only do we have the honesty to admit it, but we also are creating a system where we're going to roll up our sleeves to ensure that every child gains a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time. We're not going to excuse it away, as sadly happens so often.

I initially thought it was very creative when the group that devises the SAT tests came up with a new system that supposedly was fairer to minorities. Their new "centering" approach allows a child who doesn't get a perfect score of 800 on the math test to be given a perfect score. It sounded so good, but at the end of the day basically these administrators were saying that there's going to be different standards in America for kids who have different socioeconomic backgrounds, and different levels of income in their family.

Well, in Florida we're going to reject that notion. We say God has given every child the ability to learn, and it's up to us to organize our approaches in different ways to ensure they all get a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time.

When that doesn't happen, we will hold our failure up high so as to be clear about what's not working. And we will not leave these kids behind; we will focus on them in different ways to ensure that they do learn.

We've also eliminated the concept of social promotion in the state of Florida. Now, that is a more radical idea than you can imagine. When you have 60,000 ninth graders who aren't graduating, and who have D and F averages, it's hard not to do this - to promote them anyway. And there's resistance at the local level to keeping them back. But we are committed to moving to a system that says that if you don't get a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time, if you don't meet our expectations, we're going to find new ways to ensure that you do; and you're not going to graduate to the next level until that happens.

Finally, the education system in Florida is becoming child-centered. How many times do you hear the term "public school system," with the focus on the word "system" and not on whether children are learning or not. Well, in Florida, we are going to eliminate that focus. We don't want a school-centered system or a public education-centered system. We want a child-centered system, where the whole objective is that our children gain a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time. We will try many different approaches. It's a more dynamic, open system where all sorts of new alliances are formed; we tear down the barriers that systems build up, and we make children the highest priority in our state. Whether we're business people or leaders in our church or parents or teachers or principals, we need to make children the highest priority and not worry about the system.

Now, the elements of our plan are fairly simple. First, we are moving to a system where we test students in grades three through ten. Before, we tested in grades four and five for writing, and again in grades eight and ten. Now, we're going to have a system where we measure the annual progress of student achievement. That seems like a pretty simple idea, but very few states have that. Until now, we could not measure how one student did compared to another, but starting this school year we'll be able to measure how children have progressed, and that to me is very important.

So, we've created high standards, and our test is a rigorous assessment of those standards. In fact, our standards were given an A- by a group called Quality 99. We are one of the top five states in the country in their analysis. It's important to have rigorous, high standards that can be independently evaluated.

I wish, Dr. Feulner, that there was a better way to assess how all states are doing in this regard. In fact, I think this should be a high priority, since today it's somewhat secretive how these tests are implemented. It would be very important for us to know how we are doing. We may think we have high standards, but if we don't, we want to make them higher. I know that other governors have that same goal, and perhaps that could be a good project for The Heritage Foundation.

This year, in Florida, we will clearly communicate how schools do based on student achievement. You would think that that is a pretty commonsensical idea, but I don't know if any other state has done this. The old system graded schools on a one through five scale. I ran a little test with people in the education system to see if they understood the system. Half of them thought five was high, and half of them thought five was low.

So, we changed that scale to an A through F grading system. There's no more confusion. It's totally transparent. It may anger schools when they are given a D or an F, but it also creates resolve. We have also aligned the schools based upon how they perform in student achievement: We graded all schools; and we moved back to that principle of imposing different consequences for success and failure in some very meaningful ways.

The first way we will do it, beginning next Tuesday, is to reward the schools that show improvement. Three hundred schools are A-rated and others have shown improvement by moving up at least one grade. These schools all will get $100 per student. They will be able to use that money for anything they want, with no strings attached.

And I know what they're going to use it for. They're going to try the whole array of things that President Clinton talked about in his State of the Union address; but they will do it where it matters, at the local school level. They're going to reduce class sizes. They may hire teachers' aides. They may start after-school programs. They may see technology as the means to improve student achievement. It's their decision, and it should be their decision.

Our job is to set the standards high, to measure them in an intellectually honest way, to provide financial support for the schools to achieve the standards, and to get out of their way. So this system will begin that process.

Finally, we now have a different consequence for schools that don't succeed. When schools are rated F for two years running (and to be rated F in the state of Florida today requires that) 60 percent of the students taking the standardized test are below the basic level in reading, math, and writing--60 percent of them. When that happens two years in a row, parents are given other choices. They can send their child to any public school in their school district; send their child to any private school that opts into our system; or send their child to the same school--but that school is going to be dramatically changed because it will have to come to the Board of Education with a dramatic plan of action to rectify its problems.

The four criteria for private schools to opt into our plan are that they must accept opportunity scholarships as the full amount of tuition for these children. In our state, the per pupil expenditure is around $4,000. It is adequate for almost every private school in the state that has expressed an interest to opt into our plan.

Second, they have to meet the same local health and safety standards that any enterprise must accept.

Third, they have to take all comers, and if there are more students applying than slots, they have to use a lottery system.

Fourth, they have to administer the same tests we do so that we can assess how children are performing.

There are no other requirements. In fact, one of the key elements of our plan was to fend off the people that wanted to love our plan to death by adding all sorts of impositions on the private schools. We fought that effort, and I believe that because we did, we now have enough private schools interested in this program.

During the first year, 78 schools in Florida received an F grade. They serve a total of 61,000 students. So next year the A+ Program will expand dramatically if there's not marked improvement in these schools. This year, 134 children in two schools opted out of their current school. Seventy-six moved to another public school; 58 of the students' parents chose to send their children to five participating private schools in Pensacola, Florida: a Montessori School, and four parochial schools.

The advocacy of ideas--which Heritage is on the vanguard of-- is harder when the issue is abstract. It's easier when you put a human face on it; and now, there's a human face on parental choice in our state. The myths that have been built up over time are beginning to subside.

Myth #1: The brain drain.

You have heard the myth about how only the smart students, only the really committed parents, will accept the choice of a $4,000 scholarship to send their child to another school. That myth is constantly used by the advocates of the status quo who don't want to change any systems anywhere.

Well, in fact, we conducted a study of the 58 children that have gone to the private schools and the 70-plus students who are going to public schools, and the several hundred students who have remained in the two elementary schools I mentioned earlier. The study shows that their aptitudes are the same, their family income is basically the same, and their family structures are basically the same. I might add, 95 percent of these children are African-American, and about 90 percent qualify for the reduced-price or free school lunch program.

So, the myth of the brain drain has been shattered, at least in the case of our experiment, and I believe we'll continue to see that parents will make these choices in their own interest no matter what level of income they have, no matter what their family structure is, no matter what the aptitude of their child may be. That's exactly how it should be. We shouldn't be mandating and demanding that parents adapt to our model of behavior. These are their children. They should have the power to make those choices, and they've done so in the Pensacola district.

Myth #2: Only the rich will benefit.

The myth that's often repeated by the advocates of the status quo is that only high-income families will benefit, and in Florida that myth has been shattered immediately. In fact, of the 61,000 students in schools that were graded F, 85 percent are minorities, and 81 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.

Don't let people tell you this program only helps people in the suburbs. It's not true. It's going to advance student achievement all across the board. It's not geared to the wealthy in our state; and I believe that it is the appropriate thing to do. We should and will focus our energies where learning achievement has been deficient.

The public school system in the state of Florida will always be there. It will always be the principal choice for most Floridians. It needs to be improved, and it needs to be reinvigorated, and that is our objective. Because of that, people like Andy Young, speaking to the NAACP Freedom Dinner in Tallahassee, supported our plan. The NAACP is suing us, but Young had the courage to step up to the plate and say he's for this plan because he knows it's going to help the kids that have been left behind. I applaud him for his courage.

Bob Butterworth, Florida's Attorney General, and probably the premier Democrat in the state, has to support the A+ plan as Attorney General because the state's being sued left and right. But, while he was not a personal supporter of this plan as I proposed it during the campaign, he personally supports it now because he's seen the benefits of focusing our efforts where the effort needs to be made: in schools where kids have not been given a proper quality education. We're beginning to see movement among the traditional advocates of the status quo, who are now recognizing that this plan is going to improve public schools across the board.

Myth #3: Schools that are failing will be left behind.

This is the myth that angers me, frankly, because the whole approach to this, the whole point of this, is to achieve the exact opposite result. I wish you all could have been at the cabinet meeting where the State Board of Education heard from the principals of the two schools that I mentioned previously about their mitigation plans, their plans to improve the quality of education at their schools.

First of all, the state offered support for additional reading programs. Second, the state and the local school district supported and approved their idea of expanding the school year from 180 days to 210 days. Third, the school district said that it was going to give the power to the principals to hire and fire the teachers. They could remove teachers they did not want to retain, they could hire any teacher they wanted who wanted to come to work there. Trust me, this is a big deal in public schools across the state of Florida.

Schools focused on after-school programs because they wanted to extend not only the school year, but also the school day. They showed us a plan where they would have 70 volunteers in each school to provide mentoring and tutoring opportunities for these young people. They explained how they were going to use direct instruction to ensure that kids in the early grades begin to learn to read at an appropriate level.

It was exciting: more money and a more focused approach to ensure that children learn. I'm not a big gambling man, but I can almost guarantee that these schools are going to see marked improvement, and that the children are going to get a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time.

So, the myth that somehow the schools will be left behind because parents are pulling their children out, that they will languish, and that we're going to destroy public education is not becoming a reality. The exact opposite will happen if reform is done the right way, and, in Florida, we're committed to doing it the right way.

I wish you could see the reaction across the state to this plan. The folks in the system who are most protective of it were probably a little more angry at first than anything else when they saw the law pass that allows us to do this . But now we're beginning to see a very positive reaction to our plan. There are smaller class sizes now in Broward County in the 104 low-performing schools, the schools that were rated D and F. In Jacksonville, the Board decided to expand summer school and after-school programs for the low-performing schools. In Tampa, Earl Leonard, the superintendent of the Hillsboro County School District, made a public statement that he would take a 5 percent pay cut in his salary, and all of his top administrators would do the same, if any of the schools in Hillsboro County were given a grade of F, and, I think, a quote from a teacher says it all:

I've seen principals eat worms. I've seen vice-principals kiss pigs to get students to read a certain number of pages. But I have never seen a superintendent put his salary on the line.

You know what? A friend of mine who is committed to this plan, a businessman and contractor in Tampa, attended Oak Grove Middle School in the Hillsboro District about 25 years ago. He heard what was going on and saw the superintendent's remarks, and decided he was going to get involved in his school for the first time in 20 or 25 years. He met the principal and became excited about getting involved. Fifteen of his employees have now joined him, and they've committed to giving two hours a week to provide support to the eighth graders who are going to be taking the standardized math test to ensure that they do well. This businessman put 5 percent of his salary on the line as well, to guarantee, as did all of his employees working there, that Oak Grove Middle School would not go from a D to an F.

My hope and my dream is that we're going to see a renaissance of activity like that in all sorts of wondrous ways across our state. It shouldn't be the all-mighty "System" that we're worried about, it should be our children. It shouldn't just be the responsibility of teachers to ensure that children learn, it should be the parents and the community as well.

Three weeks ago, I asked General Colin Powell to come to Tallahassee and join me in unveiling a new strategy to have 200,000 mentors in the state of Florida get directly engaged in schools to ensure that children learn. We are on track to make that a reality. Businesses are now going to go way beyond "Adopt a School," which has been a tradition in our state and around the country. They're starting to get actively engaged. They're going to provide leadership support for principals and some financial support. But far more important, they will get directly engaged in ensuring that children gain a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time.

At the state level, we are changing the rules to allow state employees to spend four hours a month doing the exact same thing as part of their service to our state. Every Tuesday or Wednesday morning at eight, I do the same thing with a seventh-grader at a middle school who has not had the kind of attention that he needs. I'm not sure that I can give him much help in algebra and things like that, but I'm trying hard, and I believe that he'll get a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time. We're seeing this exciting movement towards focusing on our children, and no longer do we blame the system or blame the teachers: We are focusing on academic improvement.

Finally, let me just say that there is a role for Washington in this, and that is to do less. It is to reward the states and the communities that have the courage to move to this system, a system with greater accountability, where there is a different consequence for success, which happens a lot, and failure, which happens too often, sadly, as well.

Washington should support initiatives that push the power back to the states once the nation has clearly established that we're committed to high standards and to performance criteria that all Americans can be proud of.

We allot 47 percent of the state budget to education and we increased funding for public education this year by $1.4 billion, about a 7 percent increase. I think it's the second highest increase in the last ten years in our state, which helped us politically make the case that this plan was not going to abandon anybody; there would be additional resources, because education is our highest priority in the state of Florida.

But it takes 47 percent of our budget. We have a State Department of Education that spends 40 percent of its time filling out the forms that former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett tried to help us get rid of. He did eliminate a few, but there are still too many out there, and the input-driven regulatory model that demands more bureaucracy isn't going to help us with our effort to make education student-focused. It isn't going to help us ensure that children learn. Washington could help us by removing paperwork hurdles and rewarding us for having the courage to change the system. It is somewhat courageous, because there will be mistakes made along the way. There are a lot of people on both sides of the issue watching us. And there are people who don't want us to succeed.

But at the end of this process, in a decade perhaps, we will see rising test scores across the board; each and every year we'll see more dramatic improvements in test scores among students at the 25th percentile and below. We're going to see more resources go to the classroom and less to the bureaucracy; and we're going to see a renaissance of involvement by Floridians in public education. That is worth rewarding. I hope that eventually, maybe under the next President, but certainly with Heritage's help, we could convince Washington to be more of a supporter of these types of initiatives and less of an adverse player. Again, thank you all very much for allowing me to come.

Q & A

Q: Governor Bush, violent conduct is thought to be a major problem in many school districts. Is that a problem in Florida? If so, are you treating it as you treated these other issues?

A: We are. School safety is a primary concern for parents, and they're our customers. So, we have a responsibility to protect the students that come to school. School safety and discipline go hand-in-hand, in my opinion, and so we are committed to that. In fact, I should have mentioned how our grading of schools works.

The principal factor by which we grade schools is student achievement on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test. There are two other elements as well. One is attendance: In order to become an A or B school, you have to ensure that your children are attending. Second is school safety based on incidents of violence. To be an A or B school, there can't be a high incidence of violence.

But we're going to add two elements to the grading system. One is annual advancement in achievement per student. Instead of measuring how a fourth grade class of students did last year compared with the fourth grade class of students this year, we're comparing how Johnny did in fourth grade with how Johnny did in fifth grade and determining whether there's a year's worth of achievement in that time. We can do this because now we have an assessment system that tests grades three through ten.

Stealing a good idea from Texas--I'll steal them from any state--we're also going to rate how schools did, no matter what grade, in improving the bottom 25th percentile of their students, not based on race or ethnicity, but based on their level of aptitude relative to the other students.

So your test scores could qualify you to be an A school, but if you're leaving behind kids that are tougher to teach, then you're not going to be given an A grade after the rule change occurs in December.

Q: Governor, a local question. I realize the University at Fort Myers was set up before you achieved office, but the state of Florida had nine universities for a good many years, and there was a lot of talk down there that the state could not afford to fund ten universities. Can you?

A: Sure. We're a fast-growing, prosperous state, and the university system needs to be expanded. One of the sad factoids, if you will, in our state is that we have one of the lowest percentages of people between ages 18 and 25 who are attending college. While we have an excellent two-plus-two system that utilizes our community colleges, we need to expand our university system to meet the needs of the new jobs of the future.

We're growing. Our unemployment rate is low, I believe it's below 4 percent, and that's close to full employment. We have shortages now in the high-skilled areas, and it's important to be able to provide meaningful jobs for Floridians. I think the university system is part of that.

Q: Where does home schooling fit into your reform plans?

A: Although it's a very fast-growing alternative for a lot of Floridians, it is not part of our plan. We are looking at ways to provide support for families that home school their children. But it is not--at least not at the beginning--part of the plan. It was not possible to have public support for home schooling pass the Florida Legislature.

Having said that, it is the fastest-growing part of our education system, and if we want to move to an achievement- and results-oriented system, from the data I've seen in our state, home schooling provides the best results in terms of test scores. The scores are higher than private or public alternatives.

Jeb Bush, a Republican, is the Governor of Florida.


The Honorable Jeb Bush