If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush really does run for president — and it certainly looks like he will — he's sure to run at least in part on his record as a serious education reformer.
That's with good reason. Florida students' scores on a national standardized test went from below the national average to above it during his tenure. And since Bush left office, education has been his signature issue. His nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, pushed other states to adopt Florida-style reforms. His new PAC's website devotes two paragraphs of his biography to his record on education reform.
Bush's signature reform was testing students every year and grading schools based on the results of those tests. He also pushed to expand charter schools and supported voucher programs, as well as pioneering a program to hold students back who weren't reading in third grade.
Some of these ideas are still well within the mainstream of the Republican party. But others, particularly mandatory annual standardized testing, have become much less politically popular in recent years.
How Bush's testing and grading reforms worked
Like his brother, former president George W. Bush, Jeb Bush was an early supporter of standardized testing for students, with rewards or punishment for schools hanging on the results. The state's standardized testing regimen, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, was introduced right before he took office in 1999.
Bush expanded the power of the FCAT, which tests students in reading, math, science, and writing annually in third through tenth grades. The state gives schools a grade — A through F — based on students' results on those tests. During Bush's tenure, the grading formula measured both how schools performed and whether they improved over time. (The formula for high schools has since been adjusted to take other factors besides test scores into account.)
Schools that earned an A or that improved a full letter grade get financial rewards for the state, which averaged about $100 per student. Most of the reward money went to bonuses for teachers and administrators, according to Bush's foundation.
Under Bush's plan, schools earning a D or F get extra resources, including an intensive reading education program and teams of experts to help them improve. And students at schools that earned F's for two years in a row are eligible to transfer to other public schools or could get a voucher to attend private schools. (The state supreme court struck down the voucher program for private schools in 2006.)
Did grading Florida schools make them better?
Four economists who studied the A-F grades in 2007 found some good news: risking a failing grade seemed to force schools to improve. Students at F schools fared better on both the FCAT and on a lower-stakes test the following year than similar students at schools that received higher grades. Schools that got Fs were also more likely to offer summer school or after school programs, and to focus more on the students that needed the most help. Over time, the number of Florida schools rated A or B increased from 21 percent in 1999 to 72 percent in 2012.
But it wasn't perfect: another study found that some schools also gamed the system, classifying poor and low-performing students as disabled so that their scores wouldn't count.
The stakes for schools really were high. So the FCAT became the classic example of a high-stakes test. Schools held pep rallies to encourage children to do their best (and to make the scary tests seem more fun). Parents reported that their kids had stomachaches, headaches, and anxiety surrounding the FCATs. The same study that found scores went up in reading and math at schools with low grades also pointed out that those schools relaxed minimum time requirements for subjects that weren't tested. More time for reading and math meant less time for art, music, and physical education.
Those criticisms are all reasons that standardized testing has become less popular in recent years, and why some Congressional Republicans are considering getting rid of the requirement that schools test students annually. Bush's reforms in Florida started before No Child Left Behind made annual testing mandatory for third- through eighth-graders in every state. It's not clear how they'll go over in a world where annual testing has been the law for 13 years.
Bush's reforms emphasized reading — even if it meant holding students back
Bush also pushed a popular reform idea that started in Florida and has since spread nationally: the state began requiring students to hit a certain benchmark on the reading FCAT in order to advance to fourth grade. If they didn't meet it, they'd stay behind and get remedial help.
The state also focused intensely on reading, starting a program that gave schools funds to hire reading coaches and starting a reading research center. Fourth-grade reading scores went up, although that was partly because some fourth-graders had repeated third grade, meaning they had an extra year of education.
Students who were held back in third grade were less likely to be held back later, and scored higher on subsequent tests, than students who were not, according to an analysis by Martin West, an assistant professor at Harvard. But those gains faded over time.
Bush supported vouchers and charter schools
One signature Bush reform — giving students at schools that had earned two F's in a row a voucher to attend private school — was overturned by the state supreme court. But he also supported two other voucher programs, one for poor children and one for students with disabilities, that remain in place. And he's contended that competition for traditional public schools from both private schools and charters is important to force schools to improve.
A 2009 study of Florida's tax credit voucher programs, offered to poor students, found little difference in grades between students who participated in the program and those who were eligible but didn't take the vouchers. But the same researcher found in another study that competition maybe did drive improvement. Public schools where many students were eligible for vouchers and where there were strong private schools nearby improved test scores more quickly — suggesting that, under pressure, they produced results.
But Florida's charter schools don't perform any better over all than its public schools, according to a 2013 study from Stanford University. That's in line with charter school results nationwide.
There were also factors out of Bush's control that could have made a difference
It's worth mentioning that Florida education underwent two other major changes during Bush's tenure — changes he either didn't seek or actively opposed. Those changes could also have influenced test results.
First, a constitutional amendment in 2002 limited class sizes in core subjects in Florida. In Tennessee, smaller classes in the early grades led to long-lasting learning gains for students. So some people credit the amendment, and the smaller class sizes that resulted, for the educational improvements under Bush. But a study of Florida's policy suggested that it had no impact on test scores.
Second, public schools got much more money while Bush was in office. Bush presided over the real estate boom in Florida, and that led to a windfall of property tax revenue for local school districts. Spending per pupil increased 22 percent between 2001 and 2007. Evidence is mixed on how much spending matters in education. Still, research found that Florida got quite a bit of bang for its buck, improving more for every additional dollar spent than schools in most other states.
The results: How Florida education stacks up nationally
Florida students' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a test known as the "nation's report card" — have gone up since Bush first took office, particularly in the elementary grades. Between 1998 and 2013, fourth-grade reading and math scores went from below the national average to above it. The gap between black and white students' scores narrowed in both fourth and eighth grades. Only Maryland improved faster between 1992 and 2011.
Florida still lags behind on some measures. Its high school graduation rate of 71 percent has increased dramatically since Bush took office, but is still among the nation's lowest. The state's average ACT score is also low, although a high proportion of students take the test, which can cause scores to skew lower.
And Florida has become a hub of protest against high-stakes standardized tests — a hallmark of Bush's reforms. Both sides of that legacy are likely to appear if Bush makes his education record part of his campaign.