This Friday, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will join President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan at Miami Central High School to discuss President Obama’s education agenda. Bush, whose sweeping education reform agenda led to monumental gains in student achievement in Florida, told the Miami Herald that he plans to promote the Florida reform model to the Administration during the visit:
Because of high expectations for students, hard-edge policies that focus schools on learning and an array of choices for families, the Sunshine State is leading the nation in rising student achievement. … I look forward to sharing Florida’s model for student success with President Obama and Secretary Duncan.
Obama and Duncan should take away an important lesson from their visit with Bush: Florida’s educational successes have come in spite of—not because of—federal intervention.
Beginning in 1999, under the tenure of Bush, Florida implemented a common-sense A–F grading scale for schools and school districts, crafted strong state standards, ended social promotion, and allowed for alternative teacher certification and merit pay. Florida also began providing school choice options for special needs and low-income students and now has the largest virtual school in the country.
By contrast, attempts to improve academic achievement and narrow achievement gaps from Washington—from the War on Poverty beginning in 1965 to No Child Left Behind—have proven ineffective and costly. Florida has become a laboratory for reform and, thanks to the genius of federalism, has shown that it’s states, not the federal government, that are best equipped to improve academic achievement.
Washington cannot take credit for Florida’s gains in academic achievement: Florida students have demonstrated the largest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the nation since 2003, when all 50 states began taking NAEP exams.
The Department of Education cannot assume responsibility for Florida’s success at narrowing the achievement gap: Between 1998 and 2009, the average score for black students in reading increased by 12 points. In Florida, it increased by 25 points—twice the gains of the national average. If black students nationwide had made the same amount of progress as black students in Florida, the fourth-grade reading gap between black and white would be approximately half the size it is today. Just as with black students, Florida’s Hispanic students made twice as much progress as the national average for Hispanics over that time period.
The federal government cannot applaud itself for the number of Florida students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams: In 2009, 40 percent of Florida’s public school students took an AP exam, compared to just 26.5 percent nationally. In 2009, 21.3 percent of those test-takers in Florida earned at least a grade “3” on an AP exam during their high school careers, compared to 15.9 percent of test-takers nationally.
Yet Obama and Duncan—despite decades of federal failure—will likely once again try to dictate education policy from Washington.
The Administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget increases funding for the Department of Education to $77.4 billion—a 20 percent increase over 2010 levels. At the same time, President Obama has been encouraging states to adopt national education standards and tests and has been bankrolling the proposal through Race to the Top grants.
Florida is an example of what a state with strong, dedicated leaders can achieve. The Sunshine State is accomplishing what education-reform advocates have been striving for: to narrow achievement gaps and to raise academic achievement for all children. Obama and Duncan should see Florida as an example of what is possible if state and local leaders are empowered to define their states’ educational priorities. They should also see Florida as a lesson in the limits of Washington’s ability to affect meaningful education reform—and should move forward with federalism as a guiding principle in how Washington approaches education.