In November, voters in 37 states elected governors, most of whom are new to office. Job creation and economic growth will likely top the list of challenges these leaders will tackle first, and rightly so. But let's hope education reform is not far behind. Florida's investment in reform is already paying off.
Providing a quality education to every student will strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the world economy. The export of knowledge-driven industry is a far greater threat to our prosperity than is illegal immigration, which seems to dominate the news and political discourse. Without a pipeline of homegrown talent to fuel growth, the lure of cheaper labor, lower operating costs and less government regulation outside the United States will be difficult to overcome.
An educated work force that attracts global investment also helps alleviate the problem of dwindling tax revenue and growing entitlements. Students who learn more typically earn more, spend more, invest more, save more — and pay more in taxes. According to the U.S. census, a high school dropout earns around $19,000 a year on average. A high school diploma raises that average to $28,600. A college degree will nearly double your earning potential, to $51,500.
While preparing kids for college and careers starts on the first day of kindergarten, the first good indicator of their chances for success may come in fourth grade. That is when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. A Manhattan Institute study found that students who can't read and yet are promoted fall further behind over time. Alarmingly, 33 percent of fourth-graders in America are functionally illiterate, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Yet failure does not have to be our destiny. Florida's experience in reform during the last decade gives us the road map to avoid this slow-moving economic calamity.
In 1998, nearly half of Florida's fourth-graders were functionally illiterate. Today, 72 percent of them can read. Florida's Hispanic fourth-graders are reading as well or better than the average student in 31 other states and the District of Columbia. That is what I call a real game changer.
If Florida can do it, every state can. With 2.7 million students, Florida has the fourth-largest student population in the country. A majority of our public school children are minorities, and about half of the students are eligible for subsidized lunches based on low family income.
Success starts with a bedrock belief that all students can learn. All Sunshine State students are held to the same standards. As we had hoped, more and more are exceeding expectations.
Accountability must have a hard edge, which means that the responsibilities of educators must be clearly defined, easily understood and uniformly enforced. All students matter. No excuses.
Here is an example. For the last decade, Florida has graded schools on a scale of A to F, based solely on standardized test scores. When we started, many complained that "labeling" a school with an F would demoralize students and do more harm than good. Instead, it energized parents and the community to demand change from the adults running the system. School leadership responded with innovation and a sense of urgency. The number of F schools has since plummeted while the number of A and B schools has quadrupled.
Another reform: Florida ended automatic, "social" promotion for third-grade students who couldn't read. Again, the opposition to this hard-edged policy was fierce. Holding back illiterate students seemed to generate a far greater outcry than did the disturbing reality that more than 25 percent of students couldn't read by the time they entered fourth grade. But today? According to Florida state reading tests, illiteracy in the third grade is down to 16 percent.
Rewards and consequences work. Florida schools that earn an A or improve by a letter grade are rewarded with cash — up to $100 per pupil annually. If a public school doesn't measure up, families have an unprecedented array of other options: public school choice, charter schools, vouchers for pre-K students, virtual schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers for students with disabilities.
Choice is the catalytic converter here, accelerating the benefits of other education reforms. Almost 300,000 students opt for one of these alternatives, and research from the Manhattan Institute, Cornell and Harvard shows that Florida's public schools have improved in the face of competition provided by the many school-choice programs.
Florida's experience busts the myth that poverty, language barriers, absent parents and broken homes explain failure in school. It is simply not true. Our experience also proves that leadership, courage and an unwavering commitment to reform — not demographics or demagoguery — will determine our destiny as a nation.
Jeb Bush, a Republican, was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007.
Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal. © 2011 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.