Jeb Bush: 'Be bold or go home' with school reform

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island -- Jeb Bush doesn’t mince words when he describes what it takes to improve schools.

“The attitude should be big and bold or go home and let someone else try,” says the former Florida governor. “If it ruffles a few feathers or gets people uncomfortable, so be it. There should be a little more passion behind more provocative change. You can argue about how bad things are or you can say things have to get better.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

"That’s where convergence could actually be.”

That’s a message the business and political leaders gathered here need to hear as Michigan confronts a growing education crisis in its K-12 system.

Bush will speak Thursday at the Detroit Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference on how change is possible when it comes to addressing education reform.

Bush knows this subject well -- both from 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.

Twenty years ago, Florida’s school shortfalls didn’t sound all that different from where Michigan is now. But shortly after becoming governor, Bush led a package of reforms through the 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.

“You need an attitude that every child can learn,” Bush says. “It’s really important to start with the premise that kids can learn and it’s up to us to ensure they reach their God-given talent.”

Bush talked to me Wednesday ahead of his appearance on the island, and he laid out several approaches that worked in Florida and elsewhere.

He says a “suite of reforms” are necessary to advance improvement. Those include:

* Early childhood literacy efforts: Bush says Florida doubled down on literacy, infusing schools with coaches to work with kids and teachers. He says most schools of education don’t properly prepare teachers to teach reading, even though that the most essential skill a child must learn.

“Most teachers don’t know how to teach reading,” he says.

Bush also points to his state’s third grade reading law, ending social promotion of students. He says it was controversial but “very effective.” Michigan also has a 2016 third grade reading law, but the pushback to its implementation has been strong and schools seem very unprepared to implement the new policy.

Bush says Florida’s reading law was accompanied by many additional strategies for struggling readers -- and additional help for the schools themselves.

He says the self esteem of children is often raised as a reason not to hold them back.

“You’ve got a bigger problem than self esteem if you’re functionally illiterate by the time you’re hitting middle school,” he says.

* Accountability and school choice: Florida has one of the most robust school choice programs in the country, from charters to private options. Bush points to the availability of school choices for parents -- along with making parents informed consumers -- as one of the pivotal pieces to his state’s success.

Similarly, “accountability across the board” also is a necessary approach, Bush says. Florida has an A-F grading system that takes into account learning gains and proficiency while encouraging schools to implement other policies and options, such as Advanced Placement courses. Schools that score high benefit from financial rewards.

“Align the system to the results you want, and by and large you’ll get better results,” Bush says. “It’s not easy to craft a system where you can measure learning adequately but it’s well worth the effort.”

* Governance: Michigan is one of just a few states that doesn’t give the governor any direct control over education. And Bush understands the shortfalls of this. When he was first elected governor, Florida had a similar system to Michigan, in which the top education officials were elected statewide. Under Bush’s leadership, Florida overhauled that model and now allows the governor to appoint state board members, who then choose the state secretary of education.

He says having a new governance structure didn’t stop tensions coming from local districts to proposed reforms. But it did help overall.

“Having the governor be the chief education officer, as former governor, I think that’s the best approach,” Bush says. “The governors are viewed as being responsible for this and if they don’t have the authority to do it, they are limited.”

He also says the business community played a big role early on in Florida’s education resurgence.

Michigan's business leaders: take note.