Jeb Bush: He ‘dumbed down’ Florida schools

HUG FOR THE GOV: In 1998, Jeb Bush, then governor-elect, visited students at the Liberty City Charter School, which he co-founded. The school eventually closed.
HUG FOR THE GOV: In 1998, Jeb Bush, then governor-elect, visited students at the Liberty City Charter School, which he co-founded. The school eventually closed. AP

Jeb Bush earned the moniker of Florida’s “Education Governor” because he made education his primary policy focus while in office. And it’s the area on which he has been most focused since.

And he was a very busy education governor. He force-fed unprecedented testing into public schools, did all he could to neuter the teaching unions and unapologetically pushed private-school alternatives to public education. As he runs for higher office, Bush now relies on his “education revolution” to make his case.

But is Florida really a model for a national education renaissance?

In 1998 when a newly elected Gov. Bush and a compliant Legislature started Florida’s “education revolution,” our graduation rate was among the lowest in the nation. After Bush’s two terms in office, Florida’s graduation rate was dead last and remains near the bottom.

As a member of the Florida Legislature for most of his tenure as governor and a proud PTA dad, I believe that any honest review of Bush’s education initiatives reveals a much different reality than the one promoted: a state that’s less a shining model of reform and more an example of the perils of combining excessive testing with inadequate funding.

Soon after his election, Bush took a diagnostic instrument — the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) — and made it the grading tool of our school system. Schools were given grades based on how well students performed. Extra funds and accolades were showered upon schools that got an “A” and a battery of punishments was visited upon schools and students that fell short. Scoring well on the FCAT became the sole organizing principle of Florida’s schools.

But Bush’s test measured minimal competence in primarily only two subjects — reading and math. The test fully ignored almost every other feature of the school experience and, in fact, didn’t even measure high performance in the subjects it did measure.

As schools began teaching to the test and neglecting anything not measured, Florida’s floor of minimal competence became our ceiling. This distortion became especially acute because, while money alone isn’t a solution, money does matter. Under Bush, Florida had one of the lowest per-pupil funding levels in the nation, so principals and administrators did what any overwhelmed emergency-room doctor does. The state began to triage its curriculum and programs in order to devote scarce resources to what was tested.

Art “carts” replaced art classrooms, physical education was deemed nonessential. Foreign languages, gifted programs, music, higher-level math and English, civics and science all were among courses that were deemphasized or sometimes even abandoned because they were not measured by the FCAT.

My eldest daughter’s accelerated algebra class didn’t complete its course work one year because the school stopped teaching it to devote time to relearning FCAT math from years earlier. My youngest daughter’s school cut its exciting science lab program. Not taught on the FCAT!

Talk about a mad dash to mediocrity.

That’s not to say hyper-testing had no impact. If you focus an entire school system on taking minimal competence tests in two subjects, students will test better in those subjects. Some of Florida’s lowest performing students performed better on national tests. But those results have been primarily in elementary school and often short-lived.

Also, it’s hard to know whether even those improvements were from Bush’s “reforms” or the fact that Florida voters adopted — over the governor’s strenuous objections — a class-size constitutional amendment that alleviated Florida’s severe classroom overcrowding at the same time Bush’s initiatives were implemented.

Did some kids do better because of unrelenting testing or greater teacher attention? What was clear was that spending properly on education was an anathema to Bush’s rigid dogma that all government spending be constrained.

So Bush was left promoting the flawed recipe that simply raising the bar without delivering commensurate resources was enough. It’s remarkable that folks who so revere free-market principles can believe that outputs have nothing to do with inputs. Florida’s incredibly low education spending is, sadly, in sync with its dismal graduation rate, and nearly last in the nation SAT and ACT scores.

The results hurt. Despite our extraordinary natural gifts, Florida has had difficulty attracting high-wage, knowledge-based industries. Florida’s median family income remains thousands below the national average. Perhaps that is why the Florida Legislature commenced a roll back of Bush’s hyper-testing approach.

He should be credited for focusing more attention on schools, but he was wrong to confuse testing with teaching. The debate of accountability vs. funding marginalizes the importance of both. Money has to be adequate, and testing has to be thoughtful or you end up with a dumbed-down and narrow curriculum that fails too many kids.

You end up declaring success at the expense of achieving it.

Dan Gelber is a former Democratic state senator, who also served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Florida.