Florida is widely recognized as the state leader in education reform. Students in the Sunshine State have made the strongest academic achievement gains in the nation since 2003, and they are one of the only states that have been able to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students. Yesterday, the Washington Post highlighted the Florida model, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s role in its creation:
“The president who turned No Child Left Behind from slogan into statute is gone from Washington, and the influence of his signature education law is fading. But another brand of Bush school reform is on the rise.
“The salesman is not the 43rd president, George W. Bush, but the 43rd governor of Florida, his brother Jeb.
“At the core of the Jeb Bush agenda are ideas drawn from his Florida playbook: Give every public school a grade from A to F. Offer students vouchers to help pay for private school. Don’t let them move into fourth grade unless they know how to read.”
State leaders seem to know a good reform strategy when they see it, and many across the country are beginning to embrace the Florida reform model.
Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Governor Gary Herbert of Utah just signed the Florida-style A-F grading system into law in their respective states. The scale grades schools and school districts on a straightforward, transparent scale designed to inform parents and taxpayers about achievement results. The move will arm parents with more information about school performance – a necessary step to improving education. State leaders in Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana also recently implemented the A-F grading scale.
While transparency about school performance is essential to results-based education reform, providing parents with opportunities to act on that information is crucial. Many states are now working to enact that most important piece of the Florida reform model – school choice.
In Indiana, a school choice bill – what could become the largest in the country – is under consideration that would provide significant new education options for families. According to the Foundation for Educational Choice, the House bill under consideration would create a new voucher program that would allow children to attend a private school of their choice. Scholarship amounts will be determined on a sliding scale based on income, and after three years, the cap on the number of eligible students would be lifted.
Moves to embrace the Florida reform model – in whole or in part – illustrate the great capacity of state leaders to look toward what works in education and modify it to meet the needs of local communities.
By contrast, Washington has been trying for nearly a half century to push education reform from the top down, despite being far from the students and schools their policies impact.
The Washington Post goes on to say that “[Jeb] Bush left office in 2007, and his legacy is much debated.” While some may like to debate which of the reform elements of his plan were most effective, there’s little room to debate the results.
Florida students have demonstrated the strongest gains on the NAEP in the nation since 2003, when all 50 states began taking NAEP exams. Moreover, between 1998 and 2008, the average score for black students increased by 12 points in reading from 192 to 204. In Florida, it increased by 25 points—twice the gains of the national average. If African American students nationwide had made the same amount of progress as African American students in Florida, the fourth-grade reading gap between black and white would be approximately half the size it is today.
If federal policymakers truly wanted to help education reform flourish, they would relieve states of the bureaucratic red tape and heavy handed mandates, and allow state leaders to have more control over how education dollars are spent. As the recent replications of the highly successful Florida reform model show, state leaders are eager to do what works and what’s in the best interest of students.