Jeb Bush moved out of the Florida Governor's Mansion three years ago. But when it comes to school reform, it's like he never left. • His prickly, pushy spirit continues to guide Republicans and haunt Democrats. And this year, it will rattle the Capitol with a vengeance.
"He's very much alive and well," said Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami. "He's the magician behind the whole (agenda) of chipping away at public education."
Wilson was elected to the Legislature in 1998, the same year Bush became governor. And she's been fighting his education initiatives ever since. This year, for Wilson and her fellow Democrats, it'll be a battle royal over policy.
True, education funding is at risk, again, of being cut. And true, lawmakers will make one last, desperate gasp at injecting some flexibility into the class-size amendment. But it's policy where the Republican majority is aiming to make a historic stand that will make Jeb proud.
He's telling them, "Be bold."
Every major education bill fits neatly into Bush's broad vision for reform (high standards, accountability, choice). Gov. Charlie Crist has more quietly embraced that vision. And if the Republican majority succeeds in getting its bills passed — the odds are in its favor — this year's session could be as ground-breaking (or earth-shattering if you don't like it) as anything that happened while Bush was governor. Consider:
Vouchers. True, Bush championed a trio of voucher programs. But one was shot down by the Florida Supreme Court. One didn't get much flak because it was for students with disabilities. And the third — tax-credit scholarships — has had limited impact because the value of the voucher ($3,950 this year) is still too low for many low-income families to take advantage of it. Under legislation filed by Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the value of a tax-credit voucher would rise sharply in coming years. And the cap on corporate contributions that fund the program would all but evaporate.
Bottom line: This could be the bill that opens the voucher floodgates.
Teachers. Bush took a couple of stabs at performance pay for teachers, but he never went for the jugular: teacher tenure. Now some lawmakers are planning to do exactly that. Last year, Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education backed a bill that would have radically overhauled teacher due process rights ‑— rights that protect teachers from rogue administrators but also help keep blatantly bad teachers in the classroom. It got bogged down in the Senate.
Things are different this year. Senate leadership has made that bill, which also is expected to include big changes to performance pay and teacher evaluations, a top priority.
And guess who is expected to sponsor it? Sen. John Thrasher, R-Orange Park. Just elected in a special election last fall, Thrasher is the die-hard Bush ally and hard-charging former House speaker who, according to legend, helped Bush sketch out the overhaul of Florida's education system on a cocktail napkin.
Bottom line: Accountability is coming fast to individual teachers.
Testing. Bush talked a good game about raising the bar, but the FCAT could do only so much. Legislation filed this year — and wholly backed by Bush — would upgrade Florida's graduation requirements and dump the FCAT in high school. For students, the bill would make passing Algebra 2, geometry, biology and either chemistry or physics all necessary for a diploma. It also would phase in a different kind of standardized test called end-of-course exams. Republicans like them. Democrats like them. Even teachers like them. But wasn't Bush wedded to the FCAT? Patricia Levesque, a former Bush aide who now heads his foundation, all but shrugged. "You evolve," she said.
Bottom line: Higher standards. Better tests. More testing.
Democrats have filed similar bills calling for end-of-course exams, and that effort appears likely to win bipartisan support. But there's a fair chance many Democrats will back the voucher bill too.
You read that right.
Quietly but steadily, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers — many of them black and Hispanic — have bucked their party in recent years to support limited expansions of tax-credit vouchers. Whether they'll be willing to bite off the potentially huge expansion in this year's bill remains to be seen.
But the fact that they may cozy up to anything so linked to Jeb is a sign of another dynamic playing out in Tallahassee these days: Jeb's vision is no longer so exclusively right-wing. Or so easy to discredit.
President Barack Obama talks a lot about charter schools and merit pay. He says it's time to stop making excuses for bad teachers. His education secretary has put issues like teacher evaluations — and how ridiculously useless most of them are — on the radar.
That will matter in Tallahassee.
When Florida Republicans come under fire for going too far, too fast, they can duck for cover under the rhetoric of a Democratic president.
"You can't particularly say (teacher accountability) is a Republican vs. Democratic idea anymore," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "That train is coming down the track. It's coming from Tallahassee. It's coming from Washington."
More and more, Jeb Bush and his surrogates can also make this argument: It's working.
Last year, Education Week, the nation's newspaper of record for education, put Florida at No. 10 in its annual Quality Counts report.
This year, Florida landed at No. 8.
Now, fewer people are laughing. And some, strangely, are downright angry. Bud Chiles, son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democratic icon, borrowed a crowd-pleasing line from his old man and called the rankings "heifer dust." (Translation: Bull---t.)
It's true that EdWeek's rating system factors in a slew of state policies. It's true Florida got an F for funding and another F for college readiness. But it's also true Florida came in at No. 7 on the student achievement portion of the report, based on graduation rates, Advanced Placement test scores and other national test scores in reading and math.
Florida's grad rates and test scores are nowhere near good enough. By several calculations, our grad rates remain among the worst in the country. But the reason Florida ranked so high in EdWeek is because, based on some of the best indicators of student progress, few states are improving faster. That is a fact.
Democrats who deny all progress risk further marginalizing themselves, not to mention hurting their own causes (did Florida taxpayers really just spend $15.8 billion on smaller class sizes FOR NO GAIN?). At some point, they'll start alienating teachers, too. At the end of the day, it's Florida teachers — working harder for less — who are pushing Florida kids into the ranks of respectability.
Going into the session, there are risks for Republicans too.
They might have the numbers on their side. And EdWeek and Obama. And maybe even what the chair of the House PreK-12 Policy Committee, Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, calls the "converging lines of destiny."
But that just makes overreach all the more likely.
Wilson, the Miami senator, is not off the mark. This year, the Legislature won't just be attempting to build something new, like a school grading system. It's going to rip into foundations.
More vouchers, more testing, maybe no more teacher tenure — that's heady stuff. Even if the old structures need to go, there are few good blueprints, if any, for how new foundations should be built. With all of these complicated things, the details matter. And getting it wrong will have consequences for kids.
The state's recent history on teacher performance pay shows what happens when revamps are rushed. In 2006 and 2007, Florida rolled out three separate plans — all of them top-down, with little input from teachers and other stakeholders and with little room for local flexibility or creativity. The result: Only a tiny handful of districts are giving it a whirl. Opportunity, wasted.
For this year's Legislature, it goes without saying: There needs to be a balance between urgency and responsibility.
Jeb said, "Be bold." Not reckless.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614.