Jeb Bush pushes A-F grades for Michigan schools

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Grand Rapids — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday touted education reforms in his home state and urged Michigan to follow suit by adopting an A-F letter grade for schools.

Giving each school in the state a grade is a “simple and pretty easy way” to hold them accountable while helping parents make informed decisions about where to send their kids, Bush said in a keynote address at the West Michigan Policy Forum.

The Michigan Department of Education in January unveiled a new “parent dashboard” that centralizes school data online, but Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and House Education Committee Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, have continued a long-running push for an A-F system.

California still uses a color-coding system, “and the end result is no one knows if a school is doing well or not and that’s really the way they want it,” Bush said. “A-F being totally transparent is a far better way to do it.”

Bush, who ran for president in 2016 but lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 primary, is the founder and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He said the A-F grading system was one of several reforms that helped turn around test scores in Florida. But the larger effort wasn’t easy, he said, describing it as a “war” with unions.

The Michigan Education Association opposes efforts to create an A-F school grading system that would apply to both traditional public and charter schools, arguing it would “only serve to worsen the current over-emphasis on standardized test scores and slap stigmatizing labels on schools in high-need communities.”

Bush disputed the suggestion that Florida has become a state of test takers, arguing that end-of-year tests aren’t to blame for over-testing. He encouraged Michigan to adopt an A-F system that measured both achievement and improvement.

“If you have just proficiency numbers out there, the argument — and it’s a compelling one — is that low-income kids will always fair more poorly in an accountability that does not include learning gains,” he said. “I would encourage you to do both.”

Bush did not wade into federal politics or mention Trump, who regularly mocked him in the combative 2016 primary. But describing his own decision to run for office the first time, Bush bemoaned an increasing focus on personal attacks rather than policy.

Politics now is too often about “pushing someone down to make yourself look better instead of advocating policy,” Bush said. He encouraged business leaders at the forum to expect candidates to “say what they’re going to do and give them support when they actually do that.”

The West Michigan Policy Forum is an influential gathering of regional business leaders that has pushed conservative policy changes, including the state’s right-to-work law, pension reform and repeal of the state’s prevailing wage mandate for construction workers.

Doug DeVos, a major GOP donor and brother-in-law of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, said the West Michigan business community is concerned about what he described as a disconnect between education funding levels and continually poor learning results for Michigan students.

Business leaders don’t want to tell teachers how to do their jobs in the classroom, DeVos said, “but there’s a system and a structure around that that brings financial resources into the system to try to get the into the classroom. That’s where we, as a business community, I think we have a right and I think we have a responsibility to have a voice.”