There’s nothing like competition to get people to focus on a goal, whether that’s on the gridiron or in education. And on the eve of a match-up between one of college football’s biggest rivalries – the Georgia Bulldogs vs. the Florida Gators – Governor Jeb Bush decided to walk into rival territory and address a group of key legislators and business leaders in Atlanta, Georgia. The event, co-sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the Center for an Educated Georgia at the Georgia Family Council, focused on how to implement successful, bold education reforms such as those enacted in the Sunshine State under Jeb Bush’s tenure as Governor. Since better education for all students was the goal, Gov. Sonny Perdue kicked off the program with a warm welcome to his Florida neighbor.
Under Governor Bush’s leadership, student achievement increased dramatically. In 1998, during Bush’s first year as Governor, Florida students ranked at the bottom nationally in reading and math comprehension. Faced with abysmally-low achievement rates, Governor Bush implemented a set of sweeping reforms which included grading schools on a scale of A-F, setting and continually raising standards, ending social promotion, performance pay, and school choice.
By 2007, 4th and 8th graders in the Sunshine State beat the national average in reading and 4th graders also exceeded the national average in math. Most remarkably perhaps is the increase in academic achievement of minority students. For example, Hispanic children in Florida now outscore the statewide averages of all children in 15 states.
Florida began grading schools in 1995. “What gets measured gets done,” stated Governor Bush during the education summit in Atlanta. And indeed, after the implementation of the new school grading system, schools were striving to increase academic achievement – and the media took note. During the conference, Patricia Levesque of the Foundation for Excellence in Education referenced an article by The St. Petersburg Times, which stated:
Katie Lail’s phone kept ringing Thursday with calls from excited teachers who couldn’t stop screaming. Their school – Mary Giella Elementary – had overcome the odds of serving a high-poverty area to earn an A in the Florida grading system and also make ‘adequate yearly progress’ under federal accountability guidelines.
Part of the Governor’s education reform agenda also included a commitment to ending social promotion. Simply put, that policy was that if a child cannot read in 3rd grade, that child should not be shuffled into 4th grade. Schools must retain a child who scores a 1 (out of 5) on the FCAT 3rd grade reading test. Performance pay also became a part of the comprehensive reforms. Schools receive $100 per student earning a grade of “A” or improving a letter grade. Schools are then free to distribute that money as they see fit – to principals and teachers for example.
School choice is also a key element in the Florida success story. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the school choice portion of the reforms was unconstitutional. Until that year, students who attended a school that received a grade of “F” for two years were allowed to transfer to a higher performing public school or a private school. Thankfully, the McKay scholarship program, which provides vouchers to students with special needs to attend a private school of their choice, remains intact. Families in Florida also benefit from corporate tax credits for scholarships and vouchers for preschool.
The education summit in Atlanta, which included Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers and numerous lawmakers, provided Georgia legislators and business leaders with information on how to replicate the successful Florida model. Governor Perdue, who lauded the Florida reforms, noted that they include a suite of measures Georgia lawmakers can adapt to the needs of the Peach State. States across the country looking for ways to raise academic achievement can do the same, and can be confident in looking to the Florida model for guidance.