Fifteen years ago, former Gov. Jeb Bush stood in front of the United States Congress in Washington, D.C. It was Bushs first time speaking in front of the committee as governor of the Sunshine State, and he was there to talk about the changes Florida had made in its education system.
When Bush took office, Floridas high school graduation rate was an abysmal 52 percent and half of the states fourth-graders couldnt read at their own grade level.
Bush and former Commissioner of Education Frank Brogan concocted a new plan to turn Floridas education around. They called it the A+ Plan for Education, and it set the precedent for many of the standards still in place in Floridas schools today.
The FCAT was expanded. Schools began receiving A-F grades based on their performance on standardized tests. High-performing schools were rewarded for their accomplishments and low-performing schools were given extra help to get them back on the right track.
In addition, students placed in chronically failing schools were given the choice to head to better schools -- public or private -- so they could get the best education possible.
Tracey Richardson-James was present when the A+ Plan for Education was signed in 1999. With an 8-year-old daughter of her own, Richardson-James was troubled by the options she had for her daughters schooling.
The neighborhood I came from, the school in that neighborhood wasnt too good, she told Sunshine State News. I moved into another neighborhood ... and that school also had issues. I was kind of at the point where I wanted to know what other options were out there.
Richardson-James said she couldnt afford to send her daughter to a higher-performing private school. She felt trapped.
But when the A+ Plan for Education was signed, Richardson-James daughter had the opportunity to attend a different school, much to her mothers relief.
It was great to have her in an environment where I felt there was discipline, there was structure, said Richardson-James.
Eventually Richardson-James daughter graduated high school in 2010. Shes currently pursuing a bachelors degree in business administration.
Richardson-James said the A+ education plan opened a lot of doors for her as a parent and for her daughter as a student.
I think it opened up that line of communication [between parents and schools]. People were talking about it. It created other options, she said.
The plan has gathered significant praise over the last 15 years. Since 1999, Floridas high school graduation has risen to 75 percent -- a number still 5 points below the national graduation rate, but still a 25-point improvement from 1998. Many states point to Florida for its successes as being the only state to narrow the achievement gap between white and African-American students.
Yet, even with all the feel-good accomplishments of Floridas education system, the former governor who led the crusade for the state reform says theres still work to be done.
Reforms based on strong accountability and parental choice have produced tremendous results for Florida students, but we still have further to go, said Jeb Bush. We must continue challenging the status quo to ensure all students enjoy the same right and access to a quality education.
"There is so much more work to be done. We've seen improvements as a whole ... but obviously we have much further to go," said Allison Aubuchon, deputy communications director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education."The choices have highlighted the fact that not every school is the best fit for every student ... and we hope that by policies like school choice, we'll continue to do our best to give every child a chance at success."
Richardson-James now has a grandson, whom she hopes will be given the same opportunities afforded to her daughter.
My hope is basically the same as I had for his mother, for him to get a good foundation for his education, she said. "I'm very grateful for the opportunity my daughter had and how it has positively affected my family."
Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at Allison@sunshinestatenews.com or follow her on Twitter at @AllisonNielsen.