The issue of education, as expected, has been inserted into the presidential campaign. Not surprisingly, some candidates prefer to focus on how states should avoid accountability for the continued failure of our students, while raising the boogeyman of 'Common Core' as a term rather than the reality of higher standards and expectations developed by states.
That seems to be the conclusion one could draw from organizations attacking conservative education reformers like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Jeb had the vision to say that the public schools in Florida, which seriously lagged national norms of performance, needed a heavy dose of reform. Those efforts at reform now come under attack from people who call themselves conservatives and yet who manage to defend the status quo of failing schools and poor student performance. True conservatives should want all students to rise to increased expectations, not languish in substandard classrooms
They should be ashamed of themselves. Our national public schools are way underperforming against international norms. Only a third of all high school seniors are college- or career-ready. So each year, we send hundreds of thousands of students into the real world, and only a third of them are ready. Roughly two-thirds can’t do the math; roughly two-thirds can’t do the reading. It’s abysmal.
One would think that the Republican Party would stand strongly and united against this kind of failure. Our public school system is funded by significant amounts of hard-earned tax dollars – so this could easily be cast as a government waste issue. And when our students fail to receive a life-changing education, it prevents them from seizing the opportunities that our country gives them – so this is then an economic freedom issue. I am not assigning blame here. I am just pointing out the harsh realities of the casualties of not raising expectations and setting at least a minimum bar of expectations for all students to target as entry expectations for the new American economy. We can't expect kids to read what Dick and Sally are doing if the real Dick and Sally can't read.
For decades, leading conservative thinkers said we should raise standards, give more control to parents, expand educational choices and introduce real accountability. Still, some groups, such as a self-defined “conservative” group called Pulse 2016, have taken the opposite tack. They seem to grade the Republican nominees on whether they’ve done enough to resist all efforts to do right by our students.
Let me be blunt: If you are opposed to high standards and accountability, you should not call yourself a conservative on education issues. Saying, as Pulse2016 does, that you are merely opposed to federal involvement in our schools is a distortion. Why? Because all of the best ideas for school reform have come from the state and local level – only later did the federal government jump on the bandwagon. Great ideas get diffused to other states if left to real market forces and are not chop blocked by hyperbole and rhetoric.
Listen to the actual candidates and look at their record. You will see that the real conservatives on education reform are those who have actually done it. They have a record of accomplishment. They have a record of increased student performance.
When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, the state went from one of the worst states in student achievement to well above average – and that record has continued and must be pursued.
Florida took bold steps previously undone, to reform Florida’s broken K-12 system. Under Jeb's leadership, Florida raised state standards – long before anyone in Washington, D.C., thought it was a good idea. Florida implemented a mandatory grading scale for schools, so parents could see how all students were doing. Jeb made sure that middle school students completed certain classwork before going on to high school. He required schools to offer high-level math for students who needed a challenge, and he pushed for remedial work for low-performing students who needed the extra attention.
He advocated more rigorous coursework in high school, and created ready-to-work programs for students so they could move toward career options best suited for them.
Working with the Florida Legislature he also dramatically expanded parental choice, and the number of Florida students served by charter schools during that time period grew from 16,120 to 92,214. Florida created the first-in-the-nation statewide voucher program – something conservatives had been talking about for decades. Florida created opportunity scholarships to let kids trapped in failing schools go to public and private schools of their choice. Jeb signed into law the McKay scholarships program for students with disabilities so they could choose to go to better public or private schools if they felt their school wasn’t serving their needs well.
And in true conservative fashion, he created tax credits for individuals and corporations who donated to nonprofit funds, who in turn gave private school scholarships to low-income children. Ask the parents of those children what these changes meant to them.
The policies Jeb pushed worked: The state’s high school graduation rate rose by 50 percent. The number of schools rated "A" or "B" increased from 21 percent to 74 percent. Florida led the nation in improvements for low-income and black fourth-grade literacy. The percentage of African-American third-graders reading on grade level nearly doubled. Low-income and Hispanic fourth-graders are the best in the nation in reading. The number of African-American and Hispanic students passing the AP exam more than quadrupled. And Florida became the only state to consistently close the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students, and between low-income students and the rest of the student body.
Now here’s the problem: Jeb Bush’s record of achievement has been copied by dozens of other states and much later even the federal government has gotten on board. Apparently now that’s supposed to be some kind of mark of shame.
But Jeb and Florida have nothing to apologize for, and he has always said that his reforms only work when they come from state and local leaders. He has always said that the federal government has no role to play in setting standards or curriculum. In the end his record as an education reformer is something that conservatives should embrace. Jeb understands that to maintain greatness as a nation and compete in the world economy we must continually improve our educational systems. We must do better! Education matters!
Ed H. Moore, Ph.D., is president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.