January 20, 2015


Testing Time : Jeb Bush's educational experiment. (ALEC MACGILLIS, 1/19/15, The New Yorker)

Jeb's program...was of a piece with his larger agenda to privatize state-run services, from prisons to Medicaid. He also recognized the long-term political benefits of upending the system. According to Jim Warford, a county school superintendent in North Florida, whom Bush selected to be his K-12 schools chancellor in 2003, "He saw the teachers' unions as one of the foundations of the Democratic Party, and he saw a great advantage--that anything he could do to undercut the teachers' union would have a political return."

Advisers to both brothers saw little evidence that they discussed the issue. "They operated through their staffs," Warford said. "If anything, a more accurate comparison would be two N.F.L. coaches trying to steal each other's playbooks and game plans." But if Jeb was envious when George was elected President, in 2000, he did not express it. "If he has any of that feeling, he doesn't show it," Lucy Morgan, who covered him for the St. Petersburg Times and knows him socially, said. Instead, he further immersed himself in education research, and brought in national experts, such as Reid Lyon, a brain-development researcher at the National Institutes of Health, for private briefings. Even his opponents concede that he was very well informed. Dan Gelber, a Democrat who served in the Florida legislature, recalls an e-mail debate with Bush about the rating system for test scores. "We ended up having this very esoteric exchange, and I remember thinking, He either has a roomful of experts writing these e-mails or he really knows something."

During his first term, Bush's agenda suffered some setbacks. Voters approved a referendum capping class size at twenty-five students in high school and required smaller classes in lower grades. Courts ruled his main voucher program unconstitutional, because it sent taxpayer money to religious schools. In response, he adopted a funding model in which corporations donated to the program in return for tax credits. Still, after a term that also featured a big tax cut for wealthy Floridians, he was easily reƫlected, in 2002.

By then, President Bush was implementing his signature legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to meet gradually higher scores on annual tests, set by the states, in order to receive additional federal funding. Jeb Bush made it known that he thought his own approach superior, because it sought to grade schools on improvements in individual students' scores, rather than just on schools' performance in a given year. "There were lots of conversations about the work in Texas and how Florida had improved on that," Warford said. According to education officials, Jeb's team had little respect for Rod Paige, the former Houston schools superintendent whom George W. Bush had named Secretary of Education. "It was a little prickly in Florida," Sandy Kress, who worked on the implementation of No Child Left Behind, said. "It was 'We're going to do it our way and can do it better.' 

Florida's population grew by 2.5 million during Bush's eight years as governor--almost the equivalent of adding another Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando, and St. Petersburg. Suburbs colonized the former swamplands beyond the Miami airport, the orange and palmetto groves east of Tampa, and the farmland near Fort Myers. The growth, which created jobs in construction and real estate, was fuelled, notoriously, by lax mortgage-lending practices. But it was also fuelled by charter schools.

Developers of new subdivisions teamed up with companies that were opening up charter schools less as a means to innovate than as a way to benefit from Florida's boom. The "McCharters," as they became known, were paid for with public money--not just their daily operations but often their buildings, too, since Florida was one of a few states that allowed taxpayer revenue to be used for the construction of charters. But, as charters, the schools were free of public oversight and collective-bargaining agreements. In Osceola County, outside Orlando, a charter school was built next to a traditional public school to absorb students from an expanding subdivision--a "win-win-win for everybody," Bush said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Under the 1996 law, only nonprofit groups could apply to open a charter school. To get around that, for-profit charter companies set up foundations to file the application and then hire those companies to operate the schools. The St. Petersburg Times reported that by 2002 for-profit companies were managing three-quarters of the state's newly approved charter schools. According to the newspaper, the companies typically took at least a twelve-per-cent cut of a school's budget--about two hundred thousand dollars a year for an elementary school and double that for a middle school or a high school. At the same time, the charters were spending about two thousand dollars less per student than traditional public schools (which received relatively low funding, by national standards), a practice that often resulted in inexperienced teachers and spartan facilities. Still, many parents were attracted by the schools' selective aura, smaller class size, and strict behavior codes. The principal of Ryder Elementary, which served families employed at the Miami headquarters of the Ryder trucking company, explained, "We really operate like a private school."

This struck some people as being far from the spirit of charter reform. "Should we be paying money for real-estate companies posing as charter schools?" Sherman Dorn, an education-policy expert who taught at the University of South Florida, said to me. Teachers' unions and some Democratic legislators spoke out against the for-profit schools. But, in 2002, Bush signed a law allowing charter operators who were denied approval by local school boards to appeal to the state. In 2003, he signed a law to eliminate the state's cap on the number of charters, which had been set at twenty-eight in the largest counties. Republican lawmakers fought to increase the amount of taxpayer money available for charter construction, and to let developers build schools using the subdivision homeowner fees that they used for pools and other amenities.

Bush, like other proponents of education reform, wanted parents to have the freedom to choose from various schools. "Florida has the largest, most vibrant charter-school movement in the country," he said at the opening of a for-profit charter high school in Fort Myers. He had no personal financial stake in the school boom, a point that his spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, emphasizes. "Governor Bush does not personally profit in any way from his education-reform advocacy work," she said. (Bush declined to be interviewed for this article.) But some of his political allies in the state did. In 1997, Jonathan Hage, a former Heritage Foundation staffer who had helped Bush set up the Liberty City Charter School, started Charter Schools USA. Hage told the St. Petersburg Times that he had simply identified a "classic business opportunity." Charter Schools USA, whose headquarters occupy a building across from a Jaguar dealership in the Fort Lauderdale suburbs, now manages seventy schools in seven states and has nearly three hundred million dollars in revenue.

In 2004, Robert Cambo, a former Codina Partners employee who had started his own building firm, worked with Hage's company to develop two schools. Al Cardenas, who became the chairman of the Florida Republican Party in 1999, went on to be a lobbyist for Charter Schools USA and the Florida Consortium of Charter Schools. (Until recently, he was the chairman of the American Conservative Union.) Octavio Visiedo, a Bush family friend, was the superintendent of the Dade County school system. He retired in 1996 and started a company that evolved into Imagine Schools, which now has thirty-four thousand students nationwide. Cardenas, who advised Visiedo as he set up the company, told me that the Governor's support for the growing industry was pivotal: "Bush was helping me get the movement going." When asked about the money to be made in for-profit charters, Cardenas said, "I don't care about how much money someone makes. I care about how they're educating kids. It's kind of socialistic to decry an organization for making money. What people should be concerned about is what's the quality of it."

The quality was difficult to assess. By 2006, Jeb's last year in office, there were more than three hundred charter schools (for-profit and nonprofit) in Florida, with more than a hundred thousand students, most of them in big metropolitan areas such as Miami and Tampa. But the state made only sporadic efforts to track their performance. The 1996 law called for annual statewide reports on the schools, but none were produced until November of 2006. Test scores in lower grades were found to be slightly higher than at traditional public schools, and slightly lower in the higher grades. The reading test-score gap between black students and white students in elementary grades decreased at about the same rate as in traditional schools, but in the charter high schools the gap widened. However, direct comparisons were difficult, because the charters took about twenty per cent fewer low-income and special-needs students. It was even harder to track the impact of vouchers, because the private and parochial schools that accepted them were not required to administer state tests.

As Bush saw it, some schools and companies were inferior, but that situation would sort itself out over time. Kristy Campbell told me, "Expanding school choice was a priority for his administration." However, she added, just as with traditional public schools, Bush "believes charter schools should be closed if students aren't learning." Frank Brogan, Bush's lieutenant governor, told me, "The Governor is a free-market guy." But Andy Ford, the president of the Florida Education Association, the teachers' union that was trying to halt the spread of for-profit charters, believes that although Bush "does genuinely care about trying to make kids' lives better," his approach created "a closed circuit of people making a lot of money on so-called 'reform.' "

By the end of Bush's second term, fourth-grade reading scores in the state had improved sharply, though eighth- and tenth-grade scores were more middling. (Since Bush left office, gains in test scores at all levels have been relatively incremental; graduation rates have steadily increased, but they remain among the nation's worst.) Nevertheless, Bush saw his education record as his central accomplishment. "The fact is that more kids are learning now and we're not dumbing down the curriculum," he said. [,,,]

By [2008], school reform had become a bipartisan national movement. No Child Left Behind had made its mark across the country, as local leaders, such as the mayors Michael Bloomberg, in New York, and Cory Booker, in Newark, championed their roles in raising scores, and many Democratic leaders, including the newly elected President, Barack Obama, and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, accepted the necessity of testing-based accountability.  [...]

As governor, Jeb Bush had been among those who noted one of the biggest problems with the No Child Left Behind law: standards varied greatly from state to state, depending on how ambitiously officials designed their tests and defined their success. In 2009, a coalition of governors and state education officials came together and, with financial support from the Gates Foundation and the implicit backing of the Obama Administration, devised a new set of standards intended to raise the calibre of instruction nationwide. The states broke into two consortia, each of which designed a set of tests around the new standards, called the Common Core.

The effort was bipartisan, and, at the beginning, all but four states signed on to it.

Posted by at January 20, 2015 1:07 PM

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