Florida's A-Plus education accountability plan turns 15 years old this spring, and Jeb Bush wants people to take notice.
The Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by the former governor, has launched a campaign to celebrate the milestone and Florida's performance gains. The effort, called "Learn More. Go Further," also touts the move to Common Core State Standards, which Florida has slightly modified and relabeled.
The campaign debuted this month in the Tampa media market, which anchors the strategically important Interstate 4 corridor.
At least two other states — Delaware and Massachusetts — are marking similar anniversaries. Each has been an education reform leader, Fordham Institute executive vice president Mike Petrilli said, and each wants to maintain its position.
But in today's political environment, Florida's effort has drawn intense scrutiny.
Many analysts consider Bush a front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and he has made education a signature piece of his credentials. He also has become a key public face of support for Common Core, which activists on the left and right have vocally opposed.
And, he's a lightning rod.
As such, it didn't take long for some to question the intent of his foundation's new campaign, which boasts improvements in the graduation rate and achievement gap among other measures.
"It's sharing our success," said Faye Adams, a Pasco County charter school teacher who appears in the commercials. "It's to encourage us as a state to continue pushing. We're not going to be successful if we don't keep making improvements."
But Sabrina Stevens, executive director of Integrity in Education, challenged several of the campaign's talking points. She noted, for instance, that the U.S. Department of Education does not rank state education systems, despite the foundation's statement that the feds rated Florida's public school system in the top 10.
"His organization has a history of playing fast and loose with achievement data," Stevens said of Bush. "We are trying to make sure people do know that what they are saying isn't necessarily true."
The Florida Education Association also suggested that 15 years of initiatives have not generated the results proponents claim.
"In Florida, our public schools still have graduation rates that are unsatisfactory and students who take exams like the ACT and the SAT have seen only marginal improvements," FEA president Andy Ford said recently. "Our colleges still lament that they must offer remedial courses to many new students."
Because education statistics can be complicated, either side can spin them in their favor.
The state's graduation rate, for example, has risen to 75.6 percent overall. But that's still 39th in the nation, and black students continue to lag 16 points below their white peers.
Bush's foundation says "academic improvement of Florida students in eighth-grade math is three times higher than students nationwide" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. But Florida eighth-graders' NAEP math scores have been 3 to 5 points below the national average for years.
The foundation's initiative, and the response, should come as no surprise, veteran political and education analysts say.
Andy Rotherham, executive editor of Real Clear Education, noted that Florida recently decided to replace the FCAT with its own tests, rather than remain with a multi-state consortium.
"And there is generally a great deal of pushback around the standards around the country," he said. "So I think it's probably less presidential politics than Common Core advocates are realizing they need to make their case — and that, even if the opposition is misinformed about aspects of the standards … that opposition is real."
People are watching the Florida governor's race to see how this evolves, said Rotherham, a former adviser to Bill Clinton.
The outcome could make a big difference, said Rick Hess, American Enterprise Institute education policy studies director.
"I think Jeb and the foundation don't feel that Florida is as rock solid Common Core as it might look from a glance," Hess said. "Certainly if (Charlie) Crist were to win the Governor's Mansion, there's a question of where he might come down."
Florida legislators have competing views of the standards, Hess said, while public enthusiasm is not deep. Shoring up the base for Common Core — which "Learn More. Go Further" promotes as the natural extension of Florida's reform movement — could protect it from future erosion, he suggested.
Doing it now, he said, offers the added benefit of tamping down the issue before the presidential race gets serious in 2015.
"Obviously, if Bush chooses to run in 2016, education will either be a huge asset for him, because it really allows him to talk about opportunity conservatism, or it ends up being a handicap," Hess said. "He has every reason in the world to make a case for Common Core now."
Common Core is part of the message, spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said, but the foundation's campaign is not focused on it or Bush's political future.
"Learn More. Go Further" has been more than a year in the making, she said, with the aim of telling Floridians about the state's journey from a backwater system of low expectations to one in which students have more opportunities and compare well nationally and internationally.
"There was an information gap," she said. "They don't realize the incredible improvement that Florida has made."
Adams, the Dayspring Academy charter school teacher, said she has seen her own students rise to meet the higher standards. Floridians should acknowledge the performance, she said, and give students and teachers credit for having achieved.
"When we ignore the data, it takes away the feeling of success that we as teachers should feel," she said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]