Many states watch — and like — Florida's education policy

Florida is No. 1 in the nation in vouchers. It's No. 2 in charter school enrollment. It's No. 4 in the percentage of high school students passing college-level exams.

Numbers like these have made Florida the nation's most-watched laboratory for education policy.

But now former Gov. Jeb Bush is holding up Florida as not just a lab, but a model.

Bush, 55, has been out of office 18 months, but his controversial policies continue to roll. And today, a who's who of education super wonks will gather in Orlando to turn a national spotlight on the changes he championed — from vouchers to school grades to merit pay for teachers.

They already know what many in Florida don't — that many states are watching Florida. And a number of them like what they see.

"Florida's system has been held in pretty high regard," said Kathy Christie, chief of staff for the non-partisan Education Commission of the States, which assists policymakers nationwide. "I can't tell you how many times I've highlighted policies in Florida."

Bush's vision isn't popular in Florida. But he and his supporters insist that evidence is on their side.

"Florida's education reforms have caught the attention of policymakers across the country because our students are making progress," Bush said in an e-mail to the Times. "My hope is that other states working to improve their quality of education can replicate some of the successes we have achieved."

Bush's critics groan at the possibility.

The state's graduation rate remains one of the nation's worst. And critics say Bush's agenda is fueled by a right-wing ideology that has produced more spin than miracle.

"There are good things going on in Florida and not good things going on," said Sherman Dorn, a University of South Florida professor whose 2007 book title, Accountability Frankenstein, riffs on the lab analogy. "Unless you're willing to see both sides, I don't think you are being realistic."

The two-day summit is sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Bush formed last year to "improve the quality of education in classrooms across Florida and the nation."

Bush will be the keynote speaker today.

Other speakers and panelists will trumpet the same brand of reform, which is heavy on school choice and high-stakes testing. Among them: Frederick Hess (director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute) and Checker Finn (president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation)

Many tend to be classified as conservative. But guests also include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, a lifelong Democrat.

All of them know the Florida story.

For better or worse, Bush pushed the envelope during eight years as governor.

Florida did not have a voucher program when he was elected in 1998 and had only a handful of charter schools. Now it has nearly 40,000 students on vouchers and more than 100,000 in charters.

Bush made the FCAT the keystone of an accountability system that included school grades, and retention and intervention for struggling third-graders.

More quietly, Bush and his loyalists pushed literacy in early grades and the use of test data to help teachers pinpoint where students were falling short.

Did it work?

Florida's graduation rate hovers around 60 to 70 percent (though some calculations show it rising sharply). Per-pupil spending ranks in the bottom tier. Teachers are paid below the national average.

On the other hand, Florida elementary students have made the most dramatic gains in the nation on well-respected reading and math tests. The state leads the nation in the percentage of high school seniors taking advanced placement exams.

And it's no longer just right-wing think tanks giving Florida credit.

"I'm a big fan," said Janet Hannaway, an education researcher at the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. Florida "is a very smart policymaking state, at least in education."

She and a handful of other highly regarded researchers recently looked at how Florida's accountability system affected schools with F grades. Their conclusion: Schools ended up focusing more on struggling students and devoting more time to teaching. And their students improved faster than students at schools with higher grades.

Then again, researchers also said it's too early to tell whether Florida's approach is the best one, a line other observers use about Bush's broader changes.

Some ask: Will Florida students continue to make gains on national tests? Will higher scores result in higher grad rates?

"The results (in Florida) so far are promising. But there's no long-term trends yet," said Alan Richard, spokesman for the nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board.

Bush said Florida shouldn't wait on them. He described the past decade as just the beginning. "I hope we never stop trying to implement bigger, better and more audacious reforms."

Many states watch — and like — Florida's education policy 06/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 12:15pm]

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