Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who made education reform the hallmark of his two terms in office, on Wednesday praised a new state law that could spur the growth of charter schools in Florida.
“It was a historic bill. It was extraordinary,” Bush told state House members, who hosted the former Republican governor as part of a series of “Tally Talks.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and his lieutenants were the key proponents of wide-ranging legislation (HB 7069) during the 2017 session that included creation of the “schools of hope” program and expanded the Best and Brightest teacher-bonus program.
The “schools of hope” program is expected to spur the development of charter schools near struggling public schools.
“The ramifications of this will be long lasting,” said Bush, who heads the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit group that studies and promotes school innovation efforts. “It's going to make a huge difference for a lot of children, and now their parents will have a lot more choices.”
The law faces a number of legal challenges, with the latest coming from a group of school districts that want the Florida Supreme Court to overturn the measure.
“You know you're doing the right thing when you get sued by school districts,” said Bush, who was no stranger to litigation and controversy as he pushed his ambitious agenda of educational changes.
Bush lost a court battle over a law allowing students to use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools. But he was successful on a host of other initiatives, including the “A-plus” plan to expand student testing and grade schools on an A-to-F scale. He also backed measures to provide vouchers to students with disabilities and to use corporate tax credits to provide scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.
“We turned the whole system upside down. And the net result is we had big surges and gains (in student outcomes), but it's flat-lined,” Bush said. “To me, the lesson is reform is never complete.”
Bush said Florida remains a leader in changing the traditional public-school system, while warning “the minute we stop innovating and reforming, then we stop being a leader.”
Speaking from a national perspective, Bush said fewer governors are “willing to take big risks.”
“I don't know why it is,” he said. “We're in this period where the rewards for doing bigger things aren't perceived. It's disappointing.”
Bush, who ran unsuccessfully against President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination in 2016, also urged lawmakers to continue to focus on enacting policy rather than political fighting.
“Guys and gals get elected to do things, not to beat the crap out of your opponent, demonize whoever disagrees with you,” he said.
Bush said one “bold” idea he would like to see expanded is the use of “education savings accounts,” which provide public funding for savings accounts that allow parents to pay for a variety of education services for their children, including private schools, online learning, tutoring and higher-education costs.
But he also warned lawmakers they should “be prepared for pushback” from the traditional school system if they attempt to expand the use of the savings accounts in Florida.
“It's not an easy thing to do,” Bush said. “That's not putting a stick into the wasps' nest. That's blowing up the wasps' nest. They seem to spread quicker when you do that.”