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Dan Gelber: Beware of Jeb's education "revolution"

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

And Jeb Bush was a very busy education governor. He force-fed unprecedented testing into public schools, did all he could to neuter the teaching unions, and apologetically pushed private school alternatives to public education.

As he prepares to run 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 Governor Bush and a compliant Legislature started Florida’s education “revolution,” our graduation rate was among the lowest in the nation. After Jeb’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 Jeb’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, Jeb 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 money and accolades were showered upon schools that got “As” and a battery of punishments visited on schools and students who fell short.

Achieving well on the FCAT became the sole organizing principle of Florida’s schools.

But Jeb’s test measured minimal competence in primarily only two subjects:  reading and math. The test fully ignored nearly 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 although money alone isn’t a solution, money does matter. Under Jeb, 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. Florida 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 de-emphasized or sometimes even fully abandoned because they were not measured by the FCAT.

My eldest daughter’s accelerated Algebra class actually 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 school cut its exciting science lab program.  Not tested on the FCAT!

Talk about a mad dash to mediocrity.

That’s not to say hyper-testing had no effect. 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 Jeb’s “reforms” or that Florida voters adopted – over Jeb’s strenuous objections – a class-size constitutional amendment that alleviated Florida’s severe classroom overcrowding at the same time Jeb’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 Jeb’s rigid dogma that all government spending be constrained.

So Jeb was left promoting the flawed recipe that simply raising the bar without delivering commensurate resources was enough. It’s remarkable that people 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 its nearly last place in the nation for 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’s why the Florida Legislature just commenced a rollback of Bush’s hyper-testing approach.

Jeb should be credited for focusing more attention on schools, and his support of the Common Core standards is gutsy given his own party’s knee-jerk opposition to anything President Barack Obama supports.

He was wrong, though, to equate testing with teaching and to disingenuously argue that resources don’t matter.

The debate of accountability versus 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 narrowed curriculum that simply fails too many kids.

That’s why Governor Bush’s much-heralded “Florida renaissance” seems more about declaring success rather than achieving it.

Dan Gelber, a lawyer in Miami, is a former Florida state senator and Democratic Leader in the State House. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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