March 1, 2015


How Jeb Bush's school reforms really played out in Florida (Valerie Strauss February 2, 2015, Washington Post)

His critics call him not a "reformer" but a "privatizer" of public education in part because of his attitude about traditional public schools -- calling them "politicized, unionized monopolies" or "government-run monopolies run by unions" -- while advocating for charter schools as well as voucher and voucher-like programs, which use public money to pay private school tuition for students. [...]

To understand what really happened, I had an e-mail conversation with professor Sherman Dorn of the University of South Florida, who has spent years researching and writing about public education in the Sunshine State. He maintains a blog about public education at

Here's our conversation:

Q) Let's start with the basics. When Jeb Bush became governor of Florida in 1999, how did he proceed in terms of school reform?

A) In his first term, most of Jeb Bush's efforts in education came in three areas: test-based accountability, private-school vouchers, and support for improved reading instruction. In 1999, Bush signed legislation that required annual testing of all children in grades 3-10, tied test scores to annual "A" through "F" labels assigned to local public and charter schools, and required retention of children in third grade if they did not meet critical scores in the state reading test or provide other evidence of reading skill. In the same year, the Florida legislature created two voucher programs, one tied to the state labeling of local public schools and the other available to children with disabilities. Bush also created the Florida Center for Reading Research in 1999, which used both state and federal funding to support classroom teachers and reading coaches. [...]

Q) Bush frequently talks about how his test-based policies led to higher test scores. I'm not sure if he was referring to NAEP or to FCAT. What happened with the test scores and the achievement gap?

A) [...] Governor Bush and his allies generally point to fourth-grade reading as the most important story, and that is where one can see large increases in average scale scores, not only across cohorts of fourth-grade students but in comparison with the national sample of fourth-grade students. Between 1998 and 2013, Florida's fourth graders rose from being quite a bit below the national average on the NAEP testing program to being well above the national average. You can quibble with testing samples and comparison issues, but this is an unambiguous good.

The picture is less optimistic when you look at reading in eighth grade or math at either fourth or eighth grade. NAEP reading scores for Florida eighth graders slowly converged to the national average, with large bounces up and down across the years. That's good if less impressive than fourth grade. [...]

Q) The former governor talks about closing the achievement gap, especially with Hispanics. Did that happen? [...]

A) I focused on fourth-grade reading, where there is the best evidence for improvement in Florida children's achievement during and since Bush's terms. For fourth-grade reading looking at NAEP, there is evidence of gap-closing for children in low-income households and students with disabilities, and reduction of the gap at a faster pace than the nation as a whole. 

Posted by at March 1, 2015 7:36 AM

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