Jeb Bush hits the road talking education and pitching Florida's "cocktail of reforms."

In the past few months, Jeb Bush has been living the chorus of an old country song, hitting the highways and byways of America — or at least its airports — as a rambling salesman for school reform.

He's been everywhere, man.

Nashville. Indianapolis. Phoenix. Washington D.C., this week. Atlanta later this month.

At every stop, the former Republican governor is talking education and pitching Florida's "cocktail of reforms" to lawmakers and business leaders as a potential remedy for their schools.

"It's kind of hard to continue to argue" that Florida isn't boosting student achievement, Bush said in an interview. "It's like policymakers in Washington continuing to fight the Cold War."

Love him or hate him, Bush, 56, is barnstorming his way into national education circles.

Supporters say evidence is on his side. Critics concede his timing is good.

Some Bush initiatives, like grading schools from A to F, remain unpopular here. But national test scores show Florida is on the move. And other states are taking notice.

"There are multiple things (from Florida) we need to look at and either adopt them wholesale or adapt them," said Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams.

Meanwhile, the political lines that used to divide education reformers into predictable camps are blurring rapidly.

In Florida, a majority of Democratic lawmakers now support tax-credit vouchers, which Bush backed in 2001 over near-universal Democratic opposition. And nationally, it's a Democrat — D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — who is most gung-ho about gutting teacher tenure.

"It's definitely a good time (for Bush) if he wants to engage on the issue," said Andy Rotherham, an influential blogger and former education adviser to President Bill Clinton. "The debate is scrambled enough that the labels don't apply."

• • •

This week, the Bush tour is making a pit stop in Washington.

The event: an education summit sponsored by his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Bush formed after leaving office in 2007. Big-name wonks and policymakers from around the country are on hand, digesting panel discussions on everything from teacher quality to national standards.

Education should be more like milk, Bush told them Thursday. It's all about options.

"You can get flavored milk — chocolate, strawberry or vanilla — that doesn't even taste like milk," he said. "Most of the time, there is a whole other refrigerator case dedicated to milk alternatives — like soy milk, almond milk and rice milk. They even make milk for people who can't drink milk."

"Who would have ever thought you could improve upon milk? Yet, freedom, innovation and competition found a way."

Attendees are hearing plenty about Florida.

National kudos for the Florida Virtual School. A No. 10 ranking from Education Week.

But odds are, they're not hearing as much about Florida's graduation rates, which are still among the worst, according to several studies. Or about average scores on the ACT college entrance exam that put Florida at No. 48.

"If you were looking at a state that had done well in education, you wouldn't look at Florida," said Bob Schaeffer, a Florida resident and public education director for FairTest, a national group critical of standardized testing. "Florida is not doing better across the board."

But looking at Florida is exactly what states like Indiana and Arizona are doing. In fact, in coming months, both will take a serious look at adopting a Florida-style school grading system.

Both states have Republican governors and conservative think tanks that have hyped Bush's vision of reform. So it's no surprise he got warm receptions when he visited them last month. But supporters in both states also say the Florida results are compelling.

In 1994, Indiana fourth-graders were 15 points ahead of their Florida peers on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the "nation's report card." By 2007, they were two points behind.

"While Florida has gained on everybody, Indiana has been stagnant," said Cam Savage, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education.

Adams, the Arizona House speaker and a Republican, pointed to Florida's progress on Advanced Placement tests for high school students. Florida is among the top states in both participation and passage rates.

"You can't argue with the results over, gosh, a 10-year period of time," Adams said.

The response from critics: Florida? Seriously?

Indiana state Rep. Gregory Porter, a Democrat who chairs the House education committee, says what he has heard about Florida is mostly confined to vouchers and virtual schools. "It's never crossed my mind" that Florida could be a model for student achievement, he said.

Porter said until he digs more deeply into the data, he'll remain skeptical.

• • •

Bush plans to keep pushing his agenda on the road. And maybe not alone.

The Rev. Al Sharpton e-mailed him the other day, inviting him to a joint appearance with Sharpton, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Bush said he'll be there — if his schedule permits.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

In an interview, Jeb Bush gives thumbs up to President Obama's education agenda. To read it, go to the Gradebook at http://blogs.tampabay.com/schools/

Jeb Bush hits the road talking education and pitching Florida's "cocktail of reforms." 10/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 8, 2009 11:35pm]

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