Jeb Bush explains what Michigan can learn from Florida on education

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks about Florida's successful educational programs at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference Thursday at Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel.

Michigan can take Florida's story of educational success and craft its own version, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday, but it must be ready to start electing leaders who are bold and enacting consequences for failure.

"The idea that we can just check the box on education today is just wrong," Bush said at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island Thursday afternoon. "Education is a long-term commitment. You have to be big and bold and fill the space."

Bush, known for his work to turn around school performance in his home state and in the efforts of his Foundation for Excellence in Education across the country, said Michigan must fund reforms necessary for change at the beginning of new administrations

"You fund priorities first; you don't fund them at the end. You make them the core of what you are about," Bush said.

Bush led a package of reforms through the Florida Legislature in 1999 that tackled education challenges in a comprehensive way. And now Florida is seen as an example of reforms done right, from accountability to school choice.

Children in that state are now top performers in reading and other subjects, and the achievement gap between students of color is also one of the narrowest.

In Florida, which enacted a third-grade reading law, Bush said his state went through the hard work of hiring reading coaches in every school. Michigan approved a similar law under which students will be subject to retention in 2020.

"You need to have teachers teaching teachers how to teach. You need summer schools at the end of third grade, an early childhood literacy focus from four years on and you need to fund it," Bush said.

High-performing schools in Florida, those that get an A under the state's rating system or show improvement, get $100 per student as a reward. Bush said the program is the largest teacher bonus program in the United States.

"You are funding more progress, and you get a better result when you do that," Bush said.

Bush said consequences also must be provided to deter failure.

"To say every kid is the same, every teacher is the same, every school is the same, misses the point," Bush said. "You are not going to have the dynamic tension necessary to get continuous improvement."

Too many people are not reaching their potential, Bush says, because "we don't have the guts to say some things are working and some things are not."

"In this dynamic world we are living in, the lessons of Florida suggest we need dynamic policies to mirror it," Bush said.

 An analysis released by Education Trust-Midwest last week shows that if Michigan’s fourth-grade reading performance had improved as much as Florida’s has since 2003, Michigan would be ranked third in the nation for fourth-grade reading today — rather than 35th.  

Members of the statewide coalition Launch Michigan, which advocates for improved school performance, gathered at the policy conference to discuss approaches to improving the state’s education system.

Asked what is keeping Michigan from becoming a leading state in education, Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, said she has told lawmakers that if they are going to talk about education policy they need educators in the room.

"If we aren't asking the people on the front lines what they need, we aren't asking the right questions," Herbart said.

Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Group, participates in a panel discussion on innovative approaches to improving the state's education system at Thursday's Mackinac Policy Conference.

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, said other states have worked together in a way Michigan has not.

"We all have a common goal. We don’t have common perspective at all. What we are trying to do is have a common agenda," Allen said. "We need a lot of meetings close up and a lot of tense conversations."

Allen said every student demographic in the state of Michigan is behind their peers.

"If your children are rich and white, they are trailing all the other rich and white children in this country," Allen said. "Nothing is wrong with our kids and nothing wrong with our educators. It's time to fix the system."